by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Grand Budapest Hotel
dir. Wes Anderson
Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) is an apprentice baker at Mendl's, a famous patisserie in the greater Zubrowka area. She is ostensibly content; she has a boyfriend and a caring mentor at her workplace. She sleeps in an attic room that occasionally becomes cold during the winter, but that is when the warmth from a wood stove fills the room with a comforting heat. Still, something troubles her placid existence: she is the only female character of any note in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.
There is something profoundly satisfying about Wes' movies, since you know no one will ever change or be altered by the events around them in the slightest, except possibly a small note of recrimination or exuberance at the completion of their tale of woe. This rejection of the traditional satisfaction of narrative turns The Grand Budapest Hotel into a sort of vapid picaresque, something like eating the frosting off the top of a cake.
The masterstroke here is casting Ralph Fiennes in the role of a bisexual concierge who seduces rich old ladies. At first we are disgusted by this frothy caricature, but we soften to him like we do to so many other Wes Anderson protagonists, who succeed merely on the enthusiasm of their love of their world: its elevators, booby traps, perfumes, handsoaps and keys.
Fiennes has a protege of his own, the precociously-named lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The two travel to the home of a Dowager Countess (Tilda Swinton) who Fiennes has masterly seduced in the confines of his hotel. She is a disgusting creature, basically a less ambitious Cruella de Ville, and in the wake of her death Fiennes hopes for a bequest from her estate.
The concierge discovers she has been murdered by her family, and the rest of The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns itself with what will now happen to her ample holdings. In a particularly disturbing scene, Willem Dafoe pursues and executes the family's Jewish lawyer in an allegorical fable of anti-Semitism. Attorney Deputy Kovacs is the most virtuous character in all of Wes' movies, for he is the only one who gives a shit about his duty.
The hotel itself is rather deprived of joy before and after the war, and the other major set, a prison camp, is also a design disappointment. It would be weird to repeat the detailing of the Life Aquatic's submarine on a concentration camp, but it is hard to believe there wasn't a better prison movie here. What the director is really in love with is how style should overwhelm anything, and nothing will survive when pitted against it. He proves this so often we must agree it is mostly true.
Abandonment of people and places is foremost on Wes' mind here. "I can't go back to prison," the subtly ethnic Fiennes whines about his tenure in a Harvey Keitel-infested jail, but he could equally be talking about the hotel itself.
Rather than a celebration of anything, the hotel is a cauldron of bad memories and unexpected feelings, just like every long lived-in place. When we move on from painful environs, The Grand Budapest Hotel points out over and over again, they are never the same upon our return to them. This is an ancient, romantic theme; but then most of Anderson's recent movies feature an intense aversion to anything contemporary. It is only his best work which tell us something about the world we live in, rather than the one they lived in.
In his debut as young Zero, Tony Revolori's laconic expression makes the most of his unforgiving role as Fiennes' refugee lackey. He is never given very much to do in the part; he only really changes his clothes once or twice in the entire movie. The full depth of his affair with Agatha is avoided at all costs: we are never permitted to watch anyone show real love to each other in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as if that would violate the sanctity of the place. Ronan offers even less in her slim role. We are mostly told, in grating, purposeless voiceover, about what a remarkable and brave person she is.
Despite this coldness, there is some kind of underlying sympathy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, although it takes great pains to really locate it among dark jokes about dead cats and Jews. You actually have to admire the director for not pulling the heartstrings more, since both of the protagonists of the film are poverty-stricken orphans. But had we been informed of that at length, we would have instantly forgiven them anything. Forgiveness and pity is never what such people want, and they are loathe to accept any.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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