Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There are at least three contemporary movie directors who go by the name Anderson - Paul W.S. Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson. Since I don't think much of any of them, I sometimes get them confused - deliberately I think. Was it Paul W.S. who directed the insufferable psychotic love story Punch Drunk Love or was it Paul? Did Wes direct all those repellent Resident Evil movies or was it Paul W.S.? It doesn't much matter to me which.

Wes Anderson started his feature film career inauspiciously in 1998 with Rushmore, about a multi-talented (read: insufferable) kid from a poor family who has somehow got himself admitted to an exclusive boarding school. The film became a cult favorite among viewers who shared Anderson's ignorance of credibility. Their tastes were further rewarded by the even more ludicrous The Royal Tenenbaums, and a bewildering string of subsequent flounders. I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox, only because I am devoted to the laborious art of stop-motion animation.

Now comes The Grand Budapest Hotel and, with all the awards for which it's been nominated (and the few it has won), I thought that perhaps Anderson had discovered new depths - or at least depths. I read somewhere someone was calling the film a social and even historical satire. On seeing it, I found it much closer to farce than satire, and not even a funny one.

Ralph Fiennes strives valiantly to give life to the lead character, Monsieur Gustave, concierge of the titular hotel, who becomes embroiled in the disputed settlement of a deceased old woman's estate. The old woman's son, a total jerk played convincingly by Adrian Brody, contests the will, which awards a painting, "Boy with Apple," rumored to be priceless, to Monsieur Gustave. The son sends a creepy-looking henchman (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast) to bump off whomever opposes him, such as the old woman's lawyer (played by Jeff Goldblum).

M. Gustave is attended throughout the film by a young immigrant forced to wear a bellboy's uniform and a hat with the words "Lobby Boy" on it. For this alone, Tony Revolori deserves to be credited with formidable forbearance. But why is the hotel given the name "Budapest" in the first place, since it's located in a fictitious country? An end credit mentions that the film was "inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig." What writings?

The film is more probably inspired by a forgotten novel by Arnold Bennett called The Grand Babylon Hotel, which opens with much the same air of pretentious grandeur:

"Jules, the celebrated head waiter of the Grand Babylon, was bending towards the alert, middle-aged man who had just entered the smoking room and dropped into a basket-chair in the corner by the conservatory. It was 7.25 on a particularly sultry June night, and dinner was about to be served at the Grand Babylon. Men of all sizes, ages,and nationalities, but every one alike arrayed in faultless evening dress, were dotted about the large, dim apartment. A faint odour of flowers came from the conservatory, and the tinkle of a fountain. The waiters, commanded by Jules, moved softly across the thick Oriental rugs, balancing their trays with the dexterity of jugglers, and receiving and executing orders with that air of profound importance of which only really first class waiters have the secret. The atmosphere was an atmosphere of serenity and repose, characteristic of the Grand Babylon. It seemed impossible that anything could occur to mar the peaceful, aristocratic monotony of existence in that perfectly-managed establishment. Yet on that night was to happen the mightiest upheaval that the Grand Babylon had ever known."(1)

Substitute the word "Babylon" with "Budapest," "Jules" with "Monsieur Gustave," and "waiter" with "maitre d'," and this could be the opening paragraph of the upcoming "novelization" of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Bennett's hotel, despite its Oriental name, is on the Embankment in London, while Anderson's exists in an imaginary region of Europe, not at all resembling - or intended to resemble - Hungary. Bennett's novel is a genuine satire of the tenaciousness and inescapability of class in England. Anderson's film is a quite silly attempt at farce set in a pre-war Europe without the slightest feeling for the period. Anderson's apparent affection for his characters and for a hotel whose opulence has outlived its purpose would have been more appealing if they hadn't seemed like they were made of cardboard or papier-mache.

Most filmmakers have a vanity project hidden away - a film that is entirely personal and that is practically guaranteed to lose money. Only when a filmmaker becomes successful enough will he suggest the project to his backers. In the vast majority of cases (I am thinking of films like Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth), such films are ill-advised simply because most filmmakers are out of touch with their own strengths and weaknesses, or not nearly as good as their sudden success makes them think they are.

When I sit through Wes Anderson's films, every one of them gives me the uncomfortable feeling that it is a vanity project. I am wholly in favor of highly personalized, self-indulgent filmmaking. Without such creative freedom we would've been deprived of Fellini's 8 1/2. But when Fellini decided to devote the remainder of his career to films of a similar stripe, beginning with Juliet of the Spirits, it was time to say, "Ciao, Federico." Anderson, whose ninth film this is, doesn't have an 8 1/2 in him. If he had, it would make a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel both more permissible and immeasurably more sad.

One more nit to pick: When the film's narrator, none other than our lobby boy in old age (F. Murray Abraham), mentions that the war has begun and that "ten battalions crossed the border," someone should have informed Anderson that a battalion is a relatively small group of soldiers. But in Anderson's utterly harmless imaginary world, it was probably intentional.

(1) Bennett's novel was made into a film in 1920 by E. A. Dupont, starring Hans Albers.

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