Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine after seeing Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), when he mentioned that he found the film's structure to be ungainly. He called it a matryoshka doll, one of those Russian dolls that nest progressively smaller dolls inside themselves. As a literal description of the film's structure, he's right. It's a narrative constructed of flashbacks within flashbacks--needlessly, my friend thought, because only one of the framing narratives has any real connection with the main thrust of the film. I think this is only a marginally useful description of the film. I prefer to think of it as a dollhouse, a comparison that has occurred to me before while watching Anderson's films: In the sequence in Moonlight Kingdom, for instance, when the house becomes a series of panels and the film turns into a kind of comics page. It's also a lot like a dollhouse that's been opened so that you can get to the rooms inside. As in that film, a lot of the humor in The Grand Budapest Hotel is predicated on dressing up its actors in elaborate costumes (no Harvey Keitel in short pants this time, unfortunately--Keitel plays a role more in keeping with his screen persona). I don't really know what it says about Anderson that he sees in film a huge dollhouse where Orson Welles saw a train set. Both directors see a vast toybox in any event.

The story here is related by a writer looking back on a 1968 encounter with the wealthy Mr. Zero Mustapha, who owned The Grand Budapest Hotel in Zubrowka. Mr. Zubrowka relates to the writer how he came to own the hotel, even after the communists took over after the war. His story begins in 1932 as he takes a job as the hotel's lobby boy, laboring under the fastidious and eminently competent M. Gustave, the hotel's concierge. M. Gustave provides everything to his customers, including, it seems, carnal affection to some of the lonelier dowagers who stay at the place. One of those old ladies is Madame D., a fabulously wealthy woman whose subsequent death throws M. Gustave into a plot by her scheming relatives. She's willed M. Gustave a priceless painting, but the painting is only the tip of the iceberg, as Madame's own servants attempt to communicate to M. Gustave. Dmitri, Madame D's cartoonishly evil son frames M. Gustave for the murder, which results in a prison sentence. Zero acts as his contact on the outside and he smuggles contraband to him inside the confections made by Agatha, with whom Zero is hopelessly smitten. Meanwhile, Dmitri sends his man, Jopling, to extinguish any remaining opposition to his inheritance, which Jopling does with ruthless brutality. Eventually, M. Gustave breaks out of prison to clear his name, but is he in time?

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This is a film about decor. When we first see the title hotel, for instance, it's done up in late-sixties utilitarian modernism. When we see it in its glory, it's an ornate, candy-colored dreamland. Anderson's camera style is often deadpan; he allows his production design to do his work for him.  This film sometimes reminds me of the criticism Gong Li once made of Zhang Yimou's later films: "You've become a decorator." The exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is entirely a creation of the movies: a candy-colored dollhouse created in miniature by Anderson's sometime-collaborator Roman Coppola. The extensive use of miniatures throughout the film lends it an unreality, as if we're watching the contents of one of those old Viewmaster slide projectors. This sometimes subverts the film's effects. Certainly, Willem Dafoe's ruthless Mr. Jopling is a monster from another film; dressing both him and Adrien Brody in black fascist chic makes them stand out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake (apologies to R. Chandler).

The cast of the film is deep, with many of its actors appearing in what amounts to cameos (I don't remember if Jason Schwartzman even has any dialogue). For all its depth, though, this is a one-man show. Ralph Fiennes's M. Gustave is the center of the film and he give a fine comic performance that reminds me a bit of Alec Guiness in the old Ealing films. Anderson doesn't usually let his famous actors outshine himself, but Fiennes manages to steal the film from the production design and from all other actors.  No small feat given the who's who in the credits. And yet, there's still something "off" about the way this film uses Fiennes. Certainly, M. Gustave's predilection for "servicing" his dowager customers is a little bit off-putting. Given the structure of the film and its narrator, the focus of the plot ought to be Zero's coming of age and his romance with Agatha. Structurally, this mimics Moonrise Kingdom, in which two young lovers are pitted against a cast of famous faces in ridiculous costumes. That film kept its focus on this. The Grand Budapest Hotel does not, in spite of having a bona fide movie-star-in-the-making in Saiorse Ronan playing Agatha instead of an unknown actress. Instead, these are merely side-diversions from the story of M. Gustave.

Tony Revolori and Saiorse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

For all its cotton candy surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel suggests darker things. The rise of fascism between the world wars is a troubling plot point. Painting Dmitri as a fascist in the end puts the film in the position of piling on the villainy. I shouldn't complain about him being a cartoon villain in a film as plainly artificial as this one, but it seems a bit much. Ditto M. Jopling. The fascism of its villains seems like a cartoon version of fascism, too. Since its country of Zubrowka--which is named for a vodka of all things--is fictional, so too is its fascist party. My dinner companion after the film suggested to me that this is a kind of film that will become more common as the memory of World War II fades from living memory. The Nazis have become a stock character, a lazy villain, while the films that feature them have less and less connection with their ideology.  Still, there are enough echoes: Zero's status as an immigrant provides the film with one of its tense moments, and the stalking of the lawyer, Kovacs, by Jopling seems like it was made for another movie--a spy thriller, for instance, or a horror film.

Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I mostly had a good time watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's one of those films that's better while you're watching it as opposed to while you're thinking about it afterward. Certainly, seeing any comedy with an audience is going to improve the experience.  And yet, I don't think I was having as good a time as the people around me. I'm mostly willing to go along with the preciousness of Anderson's films these days--something I've long resisted--but even while I was watching it and laughing at its jokes, I couldn't shake the idea that it was kitbashed from a bunch of disparate elements that don't fit together very well, like a model assembled from three or four incomplete sets of parts. As dollhouses go, this one seems slightly out of plumb and the doors don't swing sensibly shut.

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1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Not Anderson's best, but still his most exciting and fun to date. Good review.