The plot thickens – a soup metaphor (Grand Budapest Hotel review)

OR: The Grand Budapest Hotel promises laughter, a bit of suspense and lots and lots of pretty pictures

(This review is relatively spoiler free, no worries. Also, I have a lot to say about this film. Scroll down for a short resume!)

So when I scored tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel, all I knew about the movie was that there are a lot of posters all around Berlin advertising it and that it was the opening movie of the Berlinale.

I read the summary at Friedrichstadt Palast (and is it just me or these chairs uncomfortable as hell?), so I was aware that it centres on Monsier Gustave, a concierge at the Grand Budapest, who inherits a painting from a deceased customer, Madame D. The lady’s resentful son Dimitri accuses Gustave of murder and turbulent events take their course. Early on, Zero Mustafa, a young lobby boy, becomes Gustave’s confidante and co-conspirator.

I thought, all right, this is straight forward. Criminal comedy.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

Not about the comedy part, yet the movie defies conventional categorization; at least for me. It is amusing, mostly by use of situational comedy and repetition, and never bores the audience. The characters use quite a lot of swear words, initially surprising the viewers which is just as well. Grand Budapest generally breaks with expectations during scenes.

Yeah, I can safely say that I would watch it a second time; besides I’m sure I missed several symbols, references and hidden jokes the first time around. It won’t be my new favourite movie of all times but then again, Fight Club is hard to beat.

Anyway, just let me stress a few (well…) points that turn The Grand Budapest into a work of art worth your time.

Cast

Oh yes. What a cast! I think Wes Anderson tried to throw as many big names into this movie as he could manage.

Ralph Fiennes is an adorable and multi-facetted Monsier Gustave, Jude Law is dashing as always (unfortunately he didn’t have that much screen time) and I did not, I repeat, did not recognise Tilda Swinton as Madame D. Most fun, I believe, had Aidrien Brody and Willem Dafoe as Dimitri and the brutal killer Jopling. Both were thrilling to watch (also quite scary, on Dafoe’s part). And Jeff Goldblum as Kovacs as well as Mathieu Almaric as Serge X deeply impressed me.

(Was anyone else preoccupied with trying to remember why the name Kovacs is so familiar? Just me? Okay. I figured it out on the way home that it reminds me of Walter Kovacs, the real life name of Watchman Rorschach from the graphic novel and 2009 movie. Coincidence or was that on purpose?)

Oh, and Edward Norton – brilliant as always – in a ZZ uniform? Very nice!

There were several brief appearances by other highly skilled actors that only added to the great overall performance that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Setting

As far as I know, every place in GB, whether city or country, has been invented for this strange Alternate Universe writer and director Wes Anderson has created. However, the parallels to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and later on, to the second World War are hard to miss. Keep that in mind – there is a lot of parody in The Grand Budapest, although I didn’t catch all of it. Surely, more sophisticated viewers and those more educated in film and cultural history than me will make the connections!

Cinematography

It isn’t unusual for narrators to address the audience in the cinema anymore, which is exactly what this movie does from time to time. At first, it is an author who recounts his story form a desk in his study (while fending off the playful attempts of his son (or grandson?) to distract him), and throughout the rest of the film, characters often look directly at the camera, even in POV shots. At first I found this a bit strange, yet after a while I grew used to it.

The composition of most shots is very symmetrical – indeed, mostly the centre of the shot is taken up by a rectangular or square object, may it be a picture or a window. Even when this pattern is broken, there are clear lines connecting points of interest, which renders the whole experience aesthetically pleasing. Really, delightful to watch!

This symmetry carries over to the different sequences. The plot is structured symmetrically, starting with a young woman approaching a sort of mural with keys, carrying a book bearing the movie title. On the back there is a picture of the author, which serves as seamless transition to the next scene, the already mentioned author-addressing-the-spectator sequence. We then enter the Grand Budapest Hotel itself, where the Young Author (Jude Law) encounters Zero Mustafa, the hotel’s proprietor and engages him in conversation. Zero recounts how he came into the possession of the Grand Budapest. The tale is structured in five episodes (including lovely scene cards) bearing the episode’s title. If I’m not mistaken, they briefly returned to the Young Author and Mr Mustafa when half the story was finished, adding to the symmetry. Once the story is concluded, we return completely to the Young Author, circle back to his older pendant and finally see the girl with the book again. (At this time, the mural actually makes sense.)

Noteworthy is also the use of steady cam – from time to time, the camera remains while the characters walk off screen only to appear further back behind a window or else. Other than that, the movie has taken a liking to pans, that is the camera moves with the action instead of cutting from point A to point B. After a while, though, I felt as if they were overusing the technique, but perhaps that’s just me.

One other sequence struck me as quite silly. At one point, Gustave and Zero are running after Jopling who has killed an important informant. Jopling uses skies to descend the slope while Gustave and Zero steal a sledge from under a Holy Mary statue. What I found impressive where the POV shots where the camera seemed to be on the sledge pointing forward. However, the entire thing was turned into ridicule and made me cringe in my seat rather than laugh.

Art Direction / Photography

What can I say. It’s a tad too colourful for my taste but since this theme permeated the movie, it fit. The Hotel itself is a beacon of colour coordination (not, however, when we visit it with Jude Law but even the ruin it has become hints at the beauty it once possessed). The character’s costumes increase this in every sequence, one time the suits of hotel managers are all a different bright colour without clashing. Madame D.’s family is clad exclusively in black safe for red slippers both Dimitri and his mother wear (in the coffin and at breakfast, respectively). The ZZ, this universe’s equivalent of Hitler’s SS, wears black as well, yet their logo has pink in it. Very strange for the “bad guys” but a nice change nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m no colour expert but I’m sure there are a lot of cross-references, symbols and hidden meanings waiting to be found – also in the beautifully detailed set decoration. I didn’t discover much beyond the red slipper parallel between Dimitri and his mother Madame D. but I leave this analysis to the academics whose job it is to uncover the brilliance behind Art Direction. (One last note: I think one of the many chase scenes was an homage to the staircase scene in “The Shining” but I might be mistaken.

PS: I didn’t really get the black-and-white sequence near the end. I have a few theories as to why the director chose to change light so radically, but no definite answer for myself.

 

ISSUES

As positive as my review has been so far, the GB poses quite a few issues in my opinion. A few grave ones, even and a few that are only half issues.

Violence

I didn’t expect this movie to be this brutal. There were a few moments, including one involving a cat that made me cringe. I’m a cat lover so I can’t for the love of anything, laugh at a dead cat. Sorry, Mr Anderson, but that’s just… No.

Representation of POC

There is exactly one person of colour and that is young Zero (Tony Revolori). Yay, great, at least there is one! But wait, isn’t there an older version of him in this movie as well? Should he be a POC, too?

Well… They cast F. Murray Abraham in that role and while he performed very well, I couldn’t get over the fact that he is basically white while his younger pendant is darker.

Perhaps I’m making too much out of this, or perhaps I’ve missed the truth of life that some people’s skin colour changes during life (not through cosmetic surgery, I’m not thinking of Michael Jackson). But it bothered me a lot during the show and it still hasn’t left me alone.

There’s something positive in the movie as well. Zero is constantly portrayed as an immigrant until Gustave bites his head off for forgetting his beloved perfume, “L’air de panache”. When Zero explains that he came to this country because of a war in which he lost his entire family, Gustave backtracks immediately and apologises profusely since he didn’t realise Zero is, in fact, a refugee. They share a heart-warming if awkward hug.

Representation of Gender and its Deconstruction

The Grand Budapest is a lot of things, one of which is clearly “male dominated”. There are few female characters and they are hardly what one would call three-dimensional. Dimitri’s sisters are all dressed in black, passive throughout the movie and presented as rather dumb.

Even Madama D. can only be happy because of a man, namely Gustave who brings her great sexual pleasure and becomes a friend and more. Yet the entire movie hinges on the fact that she can’t find happiness without him and that’s just sad.

The only halfway respectable woman is more of a girl: Zero’s love interest and wife Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). She is the baker’s apprentice and pretty independent and brave. However, even she would have remained passive if not for Zero’s insistence that she help him.

Deconstruction of traditional masculinity

While women in The Grand Budapest aren’t exactly cast in the best light, I found the way the movie played with traditional conceptions of masculinity extremely delightful.

First of all there’s Monsier Gustave who is a great example for the blurring of gender lines (which don’t exists; they’re a social construct but I don’t want to dwell on gender theory here). He has an impeccable sense of style, admonishes Madame D. for her poor choice in nail polish and insists on high personal grooming standards. Which everyone else conceives as effeminate and for a few minutes I thought perhaps he is gay (I know, sorry for the quick conclusions my mind drew during the show).

However, it is soon revealed that part of his job, self-chosen, mind you, is to pleasure the old ladies in the hotel. They had to be vain, rich and blonde. And needy. He also takes his role as concierge extremely seriously, has a love of poetry and is a smart protagonist who schemes quite a bit.

Gustave isn’t a paragon of masculinity; neither is he the poster boy for the effeminate male. This character shows how silly our binary designations of “male” and “female” are since he just escapes categorisation. And that’s wonderful.

The movie also plays on other characters’ misconception. At one point, Dimitri calls Gustave a “fucking faggot”, then later threatens him with violence if he ever lays or laid a finger on his mother. “But you said I’m a faggot?” Gustave replies. Dimitri, flustered: “You are. But you’re bisexual!”

Hehe, indeed!

This deconstruction of gender finds its way into the core of the problem. A painting called “Boy with Apple” depicting a fair youngling with an apple. Now my mind immediately made the connection to Eve and the apple and man’s fall from Paradise, which I thought makes a very neat connection.

Also, when Gustave takes the painting down since he inherited it, Zero replaces it – with a very explicit drawing of two women pleasuring each other. Nice one, Mr Anderson!

 

RESUME

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very entertaining movie even if the plot is a tad lacking now and then and sometimes everything is a bit ridiculous. However, the great set decoration, cinematography and art direction plus the brilliant performances of all the actors make more than up for possible shortcomings. Really, it’s Cinematography Porn!

The movie is set in its own Alternate Universe, which allows for puns, jokes, symbols and much more to find its way onto the screen. And even if it is male dominated (while portraying women that do appear as passive participants), it deconstructs traditional notions of masculinity, thus balancing this out a little.

So please, watch it! You won’t regret it.

*

The Grand Budapest Hotel

D: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Owen Willson, Jude Law

 

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