Five brief thoughts on a recent film. Hey this time, I’m actually writing about a film that you can go and see at the cinema. Plus ça change.
1) How is it that I, someone who has only watched a single Wes Anderson film previously has such a preconception and prejudice about what this film is going to be like before I had even seen it? With the exception of Michael Bay or Zack Synyder, there are no other film makers with whom you feel that you are dealing with as quite such a known quantity as Wes Anderson. It’s not fair, but after watching the film it’s not necessarily untrue either.
Let’s see, what did I expect to see from a Wes Anderson film:
b) Bold colour blocking in at least half of the scenes, not necessarily visualising anything that is happening but pretty nonetheless (yes)
c) Colourfully dressed “eccentric” characters who bicker (god, yes)
d) Slapstick (partial credit – there is some falling and slapping but there’s some pretty horrific violence as well so it’s not slapstick per se)
e) Depression and Ennui are discussed in the dialogue but very little actual emotional engagement in the film (absolutely, more on this later)
f) Excellent design, brilliant visuals throughout (very much so)
Bang on with most of it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making the same kind of film over and over. I wouldn’t blame Christopher Nolan for doing that and I’d positively praise Terry Gilliam for doing it too. It comes down to a true love-it or hate-it film, The Royal Tenenbaums. It was boring, self righteous, weakly plotted, full of exposition, vague rather than complex, detached, shallow, silly yet un-comedic, pretentious and worst of all just plain unengaging. I hated it and the press on every other film reminded me how similar all of his other films were, so I never bothered seeing any of them apart from brief snatches on TV that looked to confirm the same. I never gave him another chance until now, thirteen years later. And yes, I enjoyed it. Let’s go into what’s good….
2) In many respects of film making, this film is a master class. From the first until the last scene no more effort is put into any other aspect of the film than to create a world in which you want to see more and want to watch and look closely. The setting, the fictional republic of Zobrowka in which the Grand Budapest hotel is located is a wonderful, in-between historical nowhere that calls to mind the line from Brazil:
The place is dream-like and cardboard cut-out (some signs are in English, others in German) but it’s beautifully realised in every detail. Looking into every shot is looking into an artists’ attention to detail, placing meaning into every room, and the positions of each actor within. Not only are the historical details of the architecture, clothes, manners, vehicles and contraptions a sort of brilliant fictional place but the changes in the way the place is viewed are important too. Switching between a pre-war and soviet era, the hotel itself changes from grand to run down. From mahongany to plastic and from signs expressing service to signs demanding compliance. From baroque to chintz. The feel changes too. The focus switches from the crowded halls and cramped servants’ back-corridors to the lonely baths and cavernous banquet room. Like a wonderful model village, Zobrowka and the hotel felt like places that anyone would want to wander, to examine every last painting and discarded chattel. A place so three dimensional that the mind immediately wants to wander, find it’s own footing, explore for itself. If the film were a different genre, it would inspire hundreds of pages of fan fiction.
3) There’s another thing too. The ensemble cast, as mentioned, is something of repertory company. This is fine to a point, but if I would consider Adam Sandler a fraud for pointless, pocket lining cameos for his friends, it’s hard to guard Anderson from the same charge. Some of the performances are good but most add little and merely serve to distract, Murray especially and Norton too. It’s also worth noting that through all of this whilst the setting of Zobrowka is specifically eastern European, the actors come with whatever accent they like (Adrien Brody seems to want to do a New York accent for some reason), which doesn’t help. However, in all of this the shining light is Ralph Fiennes. The film is essentially a kind of buddy movie between Fiennes’s Gustav and the young Zero Mustafa. Zero is basically aquiet, innocent, sensitive and resourceful kid, which is pretty hard for any actor to make their own. Of the two main characters who dominate the film, Fiennes is the one with the properly written character, the chops and the confidence to shoulder the burden of being properly larger than life. He and his character are to this film what the character of David was to Prometheus. There’s not a whole lot going on that makes any kind of sense and many of the hundreds of characters are pretty underwritten so it falls to the better actor with the more demanding part to really put in a virtuoso performance to stop you from getting bored and distracted. Just as David’s androids is a wonder to behold, so is Gustav’s cod sophistication. He’s a kind of Jack Sparrow of making things up to get what he wants (is he or isn’t he a heartless gold-digger, the film doesn’t decide in much the same way that Pirates doesn’t decide whether Jack is a bad guy or not) and of creating a kind of persona of etiquette, efficiency and poetry that’s hard to pin down with any consistency but that wins over near everyone he meets. The whole film is a kind of Great Gatsby with Gustav as Gatsby, the wonderful man with dreams of an age past that is remembered fondly. Without an actor that can actually make you feel that this person is worth following and examining, the film wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as it is.
4) People who can read my writing style well will sense that there’s a “but”. Yes, there is. Of course. Let’s start with some basic questions you might ask of any film.
What is this film saying to me?
How does the film make me feel?
The answer unfortunately is very little.
The traits of this movie (like the Anderson cliche goes) are that everything is depicted in a detached way. None of the characters are given the space to be real or engaging and none of the emotion is treated as something that you (the audience) might share in. It’s kind of robotic in that way. Even films with space men and whimsy and dinosaurs can give characters the space to seem real and seem to have a kind of emotional internal state that you can feel and feel change. The characters in Grand Budapest are not only not given this space but Anderson uses every Brechtian alienation technique he can get his hands on (click on the link, it’s a real thing, I am not merely trying to seem clever – though I am trying to do that too).
Neither Zero, nor Gustav, nor Agatha or any other character is given space to develop. Zero is on the run from a horrific war but we don’t see any of this, are never shown his anguish – we are merely quickly told this in dialogue in a rapid scene and then the plot advances. The older Zero cries in mourning of his wife but the scene is stilted, the dialogue unreal and quickly over. In later scenes when the older Zero actually recounts her death, he does so with no emotion at all and even discusses the medical aspects in a technical, detached way. Agatha is given no back story at all, we are told she is brave and “pure” and she is given nothing to do. Gustav may well be an intentional Gold-digger preying on older women to inherit their things but since he never shows or discusses his motivations for doing anything, we have no idea. The number of scenes where anybody shows any emotion, even fear, are so few and far between it really does feel like each role is merely a spokesperson who is there to say a line. There aren’t really many characters to speak of, especially as the “bad guys” are so one-dimensionally bad that they might as well be Darth Vader and Skeletor.
By alienation, what I mean is that Anderson delights in making the whole thing seem unreal and non consequential, distancing the audience from what is going on. Characters are quickly introduced without really establishing who they are and why they want what they want. Brody’s character is introduced as a jealous relative, yet in one scene, he marches in wearing the badge of an invading army. No explanation is proffered, making the character seem malleable and unreal, changing to serve the writer’s needs. The whole story is encapsulated within a double-narrator effect (a woman reads a book in which the author tells us a story that someone else told him) which further distances who this story belongs to and why it matters to them. Old fashioned effects are dwelt upon to make them look fake – specifically the matt background paintings on which the camera lingers and which also appear in the background of the ballroom as a painted wall. Slapstick and extreme violence are treated with the same lightness and comedy. Scenes intentionally lack continuity. In one scene after the prison escape, Zero and Gustav are talking the conversation is shown wide, a shot of Zero’s face and a reverse shot of Gustav’s. Though both actors are standing no more than one foot apart, the shot and reverse shot of their faces are shown from a much greater distance with a fade, clearly intending to echo the look of such scenes in much older movies. Not only do the shots intentionally not match but also the location of Zero’s bag is completely different, which I also take to be an intentional difference. To break continuity constantly and on purpose, like all of these techniques is distancing and alienating. It prevents you getting swept up in the narrative and keeps you in the zone of conscious examination.
Usually distancing techniques are used because the author has a message. The author or playwright wants to show you the unreality of what is happening and how thin the characters are because they want you to think about the ideas discussed, not the drama (yeah, I know, sounds really crappy and boring). The thing is, the plot is threadbare and the potential meanings are basically non-existent. It’s one part Great Gatsby and one part Ocean’s Eleven. There is an awful lot of shouting and running and jumping and punching. There’s an awful lot of bickering too. Not much means anything and as we have seen, the plights of unreal characters are treated very lightly. The plot is run of the mill caper. An action movie with only a little action. Most of the scenes and most of the dialogue is basically filler, though well crafter filler too. after establishing the characters in the opening scenes with flair, nothing much more happens apart from running and jumping and handshakes. Brain-engaging it isn’t. It’s cinematic cheese.
Yes, you can show us a general sense of nostalgia for something lost but that doesn’t rise to become anything approaching a meaning or refrain. In a way, Gustav’s character sums everything up. He constantly spouts poems which nobody really wants to hear or think about. To bond with him, both Agatha and Zero repeat poems back to him but they seem to do so more out of friendship than anything else (they don’t do the same to any other characters). A character who held back such poems for emotional moments would be seen as profound and meaningful but Gustav has a kind of verbal diarrhoea so that he says them all the time. He makes profound words seem meaningless and reads them out as if to pretend to be saying something important whilst really filling time. That is this movie.
5) So what do we take away from this film? It’s a dumb film that is wonderfully crafted. It’s fun an enjoyable but the plot is really nothing much and it never aspires to have anything so much as meaning. It doesn’t make you laugh but it makes you feel good towards it and it certainly is pretty. You want to keep watching, but it is quite impossible to take anything away apart from quite how scared the director seems to be to put real human emotion in there and make you feel things. The director visually throws everything at the screen you could ever want to see (costume, set design, whimsical zooms and pans, fun rostrum camera, attention to detail, colour design for days, models, matt paintings, stop motion, CGI, different aspect ratios, black and white, unknowns, Hollywood A-listers, wonderful acting, phoned-in performances) but you can’t help but think that so much effort goes in to making something that is less emotionally engaging and less entertaining than Die Hard and yet still doesn’t get to call itself intellectual either.
It seems to me that Wes Anderson longs for an era of film-making where films truly are not only a visual medium but really only a visual medium. Much of this film is a homage to old discarded film-making techniques that still have something to say and an attention to world and detail that seems to come from the Golden Age of cinema where they actually built cities in the desert. This is great and I would love to read a coffee table book going into detail about the composition and detail of every shot and to read every sign on the background of every wall in both eras of the hotel. The trouble is that film making is not only a visual medium for showing art and spectacle through quickly flipping postcards. It has become the premier story-telling medium of our age and watching a film means involving and losing yourself in something that feels real and that makes you forget yourself. It means being mentally stretched. Being educated. Being part of a debate. Being scared and happy and breaking down in tears at times. Films are doing everything that books can do and more. They stretch the deepest reaches of storytelling. It’s a lot more than just making a thousand beautiful post cards and flipping them in front of a torch. To go back in time and watch a film where the director only wants to show you things with his magic lantern and doesn’t really try to tell you a story at all seems odd. A drop down in sophistication, no matter how wonderful and well made the film is.
And yet, you’ll bet that in a slow week, the Wes Anderson film will still probably be the best thing at the box office. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another thirteen years.