A film to enjoy with your eyes

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

The Grand Budapest Hotel

15, Nationwide

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the latest Wes Anderson film and it is beautiful to look at, scrumptious, luscious, such a delicious confection I would have marched up to the screen and licked it if only, at the screening I attended, Mark Kermode had not been occupying the seat in front, and it would have meant scrambling over him, and maybe ruining his hair. (A quiff like that doesn’t hairdress itself, you know.) So I stayed put, feasting with my eyes — on the film, not the quiff — so it was sensually satisfying, but emotionally satisfying? Not so much, alas. Divine pastries, divine clothes, divine period trappings, but, as with most of Anderson’s films, I was never moved or understood what mattered, if any of it mattered. I’m even forgetting it as I’m remembering it, as if it had been no more than a dream.

The framing device, notionally, is Tom Wilkinson, an author reflecting on his younger days, thereby transporting us back to 1968, when he was Jude Law and stayed at the Grand Budapest, situated in the fictional ‘Republic of Zebrowka’. By this time, it had already descended into what appears to be a Soviet-style decline, but on his visit he encounters Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner. The two take dinner together in the faded glory that is now the hotel restaurant, which serves pompous dishes to almost no guests, but is still wonderfully mise-en-scène mad, with paintings and stag heads and a cheeky, presumably underemployed waiter trying to get into shot. Moustafa, for his part, recalls first arriving at the hotel in 1932, as the new lobby boy, when the hotel was enjoying its heyday; when it looked like a multi-tiered, pink frosted cake from the outside and, inside, was buzzing with eye-popping colours and energy and life. Here, the young Moustafa (Tony Revolori) finds a mentor: Gustave, the concierge.

Gustave is played by Ralph Fiennes, who appears to be having tremendous fun, which is spooky in and of itself. (A bit like when Christopher Eccleston was Doctor Who and sometimes had to do ‘light-hearted’, which always gave me the willies.) Gustave is meticulous, fastidious, loyal, fruity, semi-comic, believes in providing service, loves poetry and a certain perfume — ‘L’Air de Panache — and to bed old ladies, out of choice, because fillet steak is all very well, but ‘the cheaper cuts are more flavourful’. (As a cheaper cut myself, I would say this is true, although you must expect more gristle.) He beds the insanely rich Madame D. (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton bathed in Gustav Klimt robes), who then dies, leaving a will that leads to a tussle involving her evil son (Adrien Brody), her lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), a police officer (Edward Norton) and, eventually, a prison-break, which throws up Harvey Keitel. There are chases on skis and chases in funiculars and chases in cars and chases across rooftops as various cameos pop up (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe) and young Moustafa courts the girl who works in the local patisserie, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and now that is enough famous names to be going on with, I think. Don’t be greedy.

So there is lots to see, as it zips along, like an old-fashioned screwball caper, but where is its heart at? Anderson has said he was inspired by the work of the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, a Jew who fled Austria in 1934, following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, so is its larger theme the impending threat of fascism? The soldiers who stop Gustave and Moustafa on train rides, causing bloody noses, and colour to leak on to the screen before finally turning black and white? Is it a paean to an era that would soon be obliterated by an occupying army; an army who ultimately set up base at the hotel? Is it right to think of the Grand Budapest Hotel as GBH in some way?

Questions, questions, questions, and I can’t actually answer any of them — sorry! My brain is only small! — but can say that, while we feast visually, we aren’t given much reason to feel anything. No sorrow, no tension, no joy. Everything is at a chilly, highly stylised remove, and we are not encouraged to especially care about any of the characters. Do they even matter? You wouldn’t think so, given the way Gustave and Agatha, particularly, are dealt with so bleakly and abruptly at the end.

So, a film to enjoy with your eyes, but which may make no connection elsewhere, and is just like a dream: vivid at the time and in the immediate aftermath, but then gone…

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  • Raymond

    More inconsequential ramblings from the irrepressible Deborah Ross, which we are expected to accept as a bona fine review. And another self-deprecating reference to the smallness of her brain — in a previous piece she used the epithet ‘tiny’. Both quite unnecessary as the fact is abundantly evident from the way she writes. Can’t Mark Kermode review films for the Spectator, please? Surely everybody sees that DR is the Experiment That Failed? Where IS the Editor?

    • Katie Cardona

      Crumbs, that’s mean. Go, Deborah Ross. She’s funny…..a bit of funny inconsquentiality is a happy antidote to such pomposity as inspired that comment. She’s writing a column about FILM, for Pete’s sake – hardly life or death. The films are mostly trivial – makes sense that her columns are too.

      • Raymond

        Her columns are trivial, yes. With this I agree, totally. Über-trivial. Films deserve better.

        • And she’s nearly always right; tiny brain, inconsequential ramblings and all…

          • post_x_it

            Indeed she is. I find her insights quite profound, even if she wears them lightly.

    • post_x_it

      If you prefer Kermode’s reviews, why don’t you go and read them over at the Guardian or the BBC where he publishes them? All free of charge and available at the click of a mouse. I (and I imagine many other readers) value Deborah’s articles; if you don’t, you have plenty of other choices.

  • Jon

    I agree with Raymond here. She just didn’t get the film.

    Example: ” Everything is at a chilly, highly stylised remove, and we are not encouraged to especially care about any of the characters. Do they even matter? You wouldn’t think so, given the way Gustave and Agatha, particularly, are dealt with so bleakly and abruptly at the end.”

    Ehm… the reason the two characters are dealt with this way in the film underscores the harshness and lack of regard for human life and humanity itself in prewar proto fascist 1932 Europe. I found the film poignant actually.

    • Susie NextEvent

      I agree if Gustave spoke up for the boy and was shot, how and why was the boy spared afterwards?

      Absolutely dumbstruck that one seems to question how the HELL he could the boy could escape just because Gustave was killed????????

  • GetSirius

    Perfect review! I couldn’t agree more! can’t believe anyone seen this and actually enjoyed it! To each their own but I think it was by far one of the worst movies I have ever seen!

  • psantillana

    I think if anything we are encouraged NOT to care about the characters. Two little things rubbed me the wrong way and the rest of it sort of followed suit (Oh wait: Spoilers). 1: When Willem Dafoe throws Jeff G’s cat out the window and then JG looks out of the window and sees a sort of cartoonish splayed cat with a blood spot. This was clearly supposed to be funny. As was the subsequent death of JG after a drawn out slow-speed chase through a museum, where JG loses his fingers. And yes, the cat death foreshadowed the man death and oh, it’s all so brutal, but you can’t have your ha ha and tragedy too. I mean, you can in the same movie (Streetcar Named Desire!), but not in the same action. Yuck.
    Likewise, 2. When the jr. cop brings the basket with a head in it to Edward Norton he does a goofy little prance step, and then holds the head up of the comic-faced relative of the man who everyone’s trying to find. I suppose it can be funny because it was her and not our little pastry chef. I suppose this callousness is a reference to the callousness of the time and place — oh forget it.

  • Susie NextEvent

    It had some funny scenes and a some what inspiring plot. But how can it seriously get such a remarkable reviews, whilst the conclusion of the movie makes almost no sense, in that they hardly explain the ending at all! and leaving so many questions unanswered. If that’s what it takes to make a good movie then I guess all the bad directors/writers of the world should take notice. As long as the ending is happy just leave everything to ambiguity. It seems they insult the viewer by leaving everything undefined, whilst giving the premise as if they didn’t.

    On a side note the choice of casting for the main cast was crude at best. The actor that plays the kid looks to be from the middle east with a dark olive skin completion, and the older version appears to be Slavic with a big Bulgarian nose, absurd to say the least how hard can it be, they could hardly have looked more different. 5/10 is perfectly reasonable score for this movie.

    • Paul Bronfman

      The excellent critical reviews for this movie are unexplainable and perplexing !

      Feast your eyes for free at home if you must, but DO NOT WASTE money seeing this movie in any way shape or form.


  • Paul Bronfman

    I f*35ing hated this movie, saw it in the theatre, the stunned audience we were 98% mute through the entire thing. It seemed like the type of movie that people who think they are artistic can go on about while everyone else is shaking their heads over this movie they may think they don’t understand but actually the script was in the toilet and I doubt even one “star” read it before agreeing to make a cameo.

  • smiffinch

    Thank you Deborah Ross, the voice of sense. And it’s patronising to suggest she didn’t “get” it. I “got” it but, apart from a few slightly funny elements and good turns from the 2 main leads (Fiennes and the Lobby Boy) I basically found it very boring, and turned it off after 55 minutes. Couldn’t be bothered to sit through any more of it. Pretentious, Emperor’s New Clothes kind of stuff for people who like to think they are film buffs.