Very unprofessionally of me, or perhaps aptly in Wes Anderson’s story-within-a-story style, I will start by my review by quoting Mark Kermode’s astute review, watching The Grand Budapest Hotel is “less like marvelling at the silent workings of a Swiss watch than goggling at the innards of a grandfather clock, cogs and pulleys proudly displayed.” Wes Anderson is maybe the most unwavering of the few American auteurs working today – so if you loved his previous films, you will feel the same with this, and vice versa.
Unwavering not in the sense of quality, The Royal Tenenbaums was successful homebrewed lemonade spiked with melancholy, while The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is about as meaningful as a Cath Kidson teapot. Rather, unwavering in this above-mentioned mechanical sense. Along with narrative devices such as chapter headings and inception style plunging into novels-within-novels-within-novels, Anderson’s aims to flatten the image as much as possible as if watching shadow puppetry; the camera is always placed parallel to the action and moves forcefully at right angles. Where most films aim to submerge you in the story, Anderson for whatever reason never wants to break that veil. On top his dialogue is just as mechanical, unbelievable but zesty, thus quite intriguing that actors line up to work with him considering that they are required less to act and more to become puppets – based on Ralph Fiennes’ exquisite performance here maybe it is a case of great craft coming from restriction.
His films are so reliant on his charm and script, that it can really go both ways, and one’s opinion on Anderson may stem from which film one has seen. Having seen them all, I say Grand Budapest Hotel is among his better, and simply because it’s an outright, actually funny, comedy. There is an occasional clash against the humour with the misplaced faint shadowing backdrop of war that serves to provide sentimental shock via the odd line of expositional dialogue (it’s about as laborious to watch as that sentence was to read), but for the most part this is almost on par with his animation Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The sets are devoid of authenticity, instead colourful and engrossing, the set pieces replace tension with whimsical spectacle and joy, and the story refuses to stick to one genre but hops from crime-caper to romance to prison breakout and on. Whether you enjoy Anderson’s films or not, it’s good to see someone in the mainstream adjust the filmmaking formula and tell a story with a flare for the unusual – even if his particular strand of unusual has become his “to be expected” aesthetic. Anderson strikes me as someone who will have read filmmaking manuals like Robert McKee’s Story or Syd Field’s Screenplay, and then abandoned them, and one has to have respect for that. So even when Anderson spouts out drivel (which in my opinion, is more often than not) I still cry long live Wes!
- JAMES A GEORGE IS EYEWEAR'S FILM CRITIC, AND A FILM-MAKER, WITH A DEGREE FROM KINGSTON UNIVERSITY, LONDON