The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson (USA 2014) Ralph Fiennes, F Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe.
Viewed Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne; 1st April 2014; ticket £4.00
Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel is a anodyne vehicule for an admixture of Sfx and strong set design. It's also a chance for a number of established Hollywood stars to earn easy corn playing out the cartoon like characters who front the predominantly red decors. In cinematic form it is sort of retake on tried and trusted studio box office favourites such as Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express. It is formulaic movie making. And a good formula like a good recipe can be a risk free way of getting the bums on seats and making a buck for the backers. To that extent it is very successful.
With the formula there are no real surprises. The pleasure lies in how it is done and at least in its engagement with its audience allowing a sort of soporific easement of time. In this respect at least Anderson and or his producers have recognised that GBH, as an exercise in simple pleasing, weighs in at 100 minutes. so doesn't outstay itself. There are a lot of films of two hour plus duration, that are simply temporally challenged. So in this respect, Wes Anderson has known how to cut the cloth.
The cast go through their two dimensional impersonations with an enjoyable aplomb, a wink here and a nod there, keeping the audience amused. And amusement sums up the pay off for the audience, Wes Anderson playing off his characters against sets and settings expressive of Hollywood's notions of a vanished aristocratic past. It's an old trick most memorably effected by Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Kind Hearts had a good measure of black humour and the self effacing performances of Alec Guinness, so that it not only transcended its formulaic mode but also made it a very funny film. GBH is not funny, only humorous. During the screening the biggest elicited laughs were for Gustave's use of expletives like “fucking' and “shit' . The laughs being the audience's perception of expressive disjunction between Gustave's usual manner of discourse and suave self presentation, and the crudity of his real thoughts when actually spoken.
There is at the core of the script, based on the Stefan Zweig stories, an entangled temporal confusion. The Zweig stories are set mostly before the first world war in a disappeared world. Wes Anderson and perhaps his producers seem to have been unable to decide in which era to set the script: either just before the first world war (authentic and in keeping with the scenario and sets and source material) or just before the second world war (inauthentic and out of keeping with the sets and source material) The film gives the impression of a manic battle between these two alternatives, which ends understandably with a schizo outcome and a script that opts for one time and a scenario that is opts for another. Everything looks and reads pre-1914, but the scripted references are all to the 1930's and the rise of German fascism.
The schizo relation between the makers of the film and their material is caused mainly by the framing devices used to structure time. There are three time frames in the movie: the opening sequence, with a contemporary setting in 2014 comprising a piece to camera by an author explaining his work and an event in the past that occasioned a novel; the second time frame, set some 50 years earlier perhaps c.1960 in which we see the same author, now seen as a young man, being told the story of the hotel by the current owner; finally the time frame of originating story which features the owner as an adolescent. Setting the first piece to camera in the actual present, locks the other two time frames into position, leaving the original story set in the 1930's immediately before the second world war. In terms of the age of the hotel owner and the author nothing else would make sense in terms of the arithmetic of age. But this era, is totally out of kilter with the Zweig novel Beware of Pity, one of the key works upon which the script is loosely based. This novel is set just before the first world war, a war that implicitly according to Zweig, ended an era. All Zweig's referents: the class structure, the codes of conduct and honour, the patch work geopolitical shape of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the dress codes and fashions of men and women are retained by Wes Anderson, who then tries to pass them off in the movie as representing Europe in 1939. Which it doesn't.
This temporal schizoid lesion buried into GBH gets in the way of the flow of the film in as much as it doesn't permit the script to properly celebrate the unique madness and eccentricity of the period immediately before the first world war. The script has to permit the intrusion of attitudes and invasions of style that are not at one with the mis en scene and the SFX. I think GBH is a lesser film , less entertaining less funny because Anderson failed to sort out his time codes.
As a lesser but not irrelevant concern it also takes the audience for a ride. The script either holds them in contempt for not recognising the difference between two historic eras. Or it renders its audience or certainly some of them into a state of confusion or stupefaction as to what exactly is going on in relation to GBH's time frames.