Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

Courtesan au chocolat

What's a Wes Anderson film like? Describing one's a task I find both easy and difficult--easy in that I can talk till the moon goes dim, difficult in that everyone else has taken a stab at it and practically everything insightful or original has already been committed to the printed (or digital) page.

Nevertheless, three attempts--

Anderson's films are like dioramas. You notice the numerous miniatures, monomaniacally detailed (what, for example, looks like a funicular clambering up the cliff face), occasionally in motion (the ski-and-bobsled chase sequence, done in real time--when Jopling (Willem Dafoe) launches from the ski jump he flicks into the air like one of Mischa Auer's circus fleas); you also see various sets and props that look as if they were miniatures, toylike representations of themselves (the gloriously chichi Mendl's Bakery boxes, candy pink cardboard which with a pull of the ribbon assemble themselves into carrying cases, with a tug at the knot fall apart to reveal the pretty pastries inside). The people in his films--and you realize with a start that, yes, there are people in his films--often pose like diorama figures, staring straight at the camera with a helpless or resigned expression on their faces (in a way they evoke the films of Terence Davies, only Davies seems to want to suggest the yellowing photographs from an old family album, while Anderson is more interested in a stylized comedy). 

You also sense the stale air of a diorama, especially in the later titles--the sense that these brittle figures were conceived in a studio, and are too fragile to be exposed to fresh air, or see the light of day (their colors would fade!). The scent of slowly browning newspaper and dessicated insects and mothballs, that's the smell of a Wes Anderson film.


The films are like fish tanks. Again the same narrow depth-of-field, but you also sense a thick pane of glass (the camera lens?) blocking your view. And the creatures within! Colorful, trailing lacelike gossamer fins and languidly wavering lances and barbs, they often stare at you with huge goldfish eyes and make weak little gulping motions with their mouths. Behind stand fairy-tale castles and forests of kelp--though sometimes the water is so cloudy and full of disintegrating fish flakes you can't be completely sure. Occasionally there is a distortion in the image, either an effect of internal water currents or a flaw in the camera lens--hard to know which. 

Anderson didn't come by this look immediately--his debut feature Bottle Rocket was set in the sunlit reality of Texas--but by his second feature Rushmore, easily the most memorable moment in the film was Max Fischer's production of Heaven and Hell, a high school stage play where a toy helicopter hovered over a small-scale Vietnam jungle, and a full-scale flamethrower hosed fire on the sets. His The Royal Tenenbaums was set in a mostly realistic New York City, though the color palette looked suspiciously coordinated; in his succeeding features (The Life Aquatic with Seve Zissou; The Darjeeling Limited) the stylization gradually took over, till with The Fantastic Mr. Fox (arguably my favorite of his works) Anderson has dropped all pretenses and made a full-on stop-motion animated picture.  With Rushmore Anderson reportedly wanted "slightly heightened reality, like a Roald Dahl children's book;" by the time of Mr. Fox he was adapting Dahl directly to the big screen. 
If the look of his films have gradually changed, his characters--with their lances and barbs and lacelike gossamer fins trailing behind--have always been stylized, always seemed out-of-sync with the real world (arguably Bottle Rocket with its everyday Dallas, Texas setting is his weakest feature). Practicality is a sought-after quality in Anderson's films, mainly because few of his characters actually possess it--and yet even in those fantastical enclosed worlds it's a necessary virtue to have in order to survive. Hence the melancholy, the sense of loss.  

Which brings us to Grand Budapest's legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes). He appears to be yet another doomed Anderson fish with his freak proudly worn on the sleeve, fins, barbs, lances and all. But he's a survivor; he thrives, ruling the small world of his hotel (hundreds of rooms and as many employees) with benevolent tyranny, extending feelers into the outside through the rich old blonde women he beds, and the invaluable help of the underground concierge network. 

It's a changing world, however--the Second World War is on its way, and fascistic thugs chase Anderson's heroes across the fairy-tale (occasionally snow-powdered) landscape. Perhaps Anderson's barbs and lances and fins have an evolutionary purpose after all, in some nostalgic past; they served Gustave well, but are near-useless in this modern industrial landscape. 

Anderson in interviews mentions yet another influential writer: Stephen Zweig, largely forgotten now, who wrote fiction set in a vanished central Europe (one of his best-known, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, was adapted into a film by both Max Ophuls and Xu Jinglei). George Prochnik, who has just written a book about Zweig, notes that Anderson's film is markedly different in tone but does manage to capture Zweig's sense of flawed--even forbidden--pleasure, consistently indulged; he also notes how the film (like Zweig) is a "celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy."

Gustave you might say incarnates those principles, in the way he savors elderly blonde patrons and Mendl's sugary concoctions both (one of which turns out to be hazardous to his health), and in the way he celebrates a lifestyle he knows will soon pass (he stares at the Nazi-like thugs threatening violence with the wariness of a farmer staring at storm clouds--rain would be good, but a flood would wash away crops). 

I've never really warmed to Ralph Fiennes as an actor; in the Holocaust drama Schindler's List he was a humorless thug, in Graham Greene's romantic The End of the Affair a humorless lover, in the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan a humorless comic lover. Fiennes doesn't really crack a smile in Grand Budapest but does do something better: play a man so dedicated to the idea of civilized living he's willing to risk life, limb, liberty to uphold it, doing so with the impossible energy and elan of an old-school hero (perhaps it's all those high-calorie Mendl's sweets?). Fiennes has discovered a trick Buster Keaton mastered back in the silent cinema days: focus on what you're doing with all your heart and you'll be funny anyway--never mind grins or laughs; that's for the audience to experience. 

I did promise a third stab at describing a Wes Anderson, didn't I?

The films are like Mendl's pastries. Impossibly, almost ridiculously beautiful creations on a  miniaturized scale--as if someone had taken a handful of big ideas and reduced them (like Japanese bonsai) into pocket-size knickknacks, concentrating the flavor of their charm along the way. They have the delicately crisp exteriors of the most cunning profiteroles, contain an unhealthy amount of chocolate filling (like a ganache only richer thanks to the egg yolks and sugar, and not a little bitter thanks to the chunks of semi-sweet chocolate). They're dipped in brightly-colored glaze (in matching brightly-colored containers), decorated with a totally unnecessary filigree of white chocolate, and topped with a single (acrid, not a little crunchy) cocoa bean. 

Biting into these courtesans--I imagine--must be like nipping Venus' nipple: wrong but oh so good. The teeth shatter the brittle shell, the filling floods the tongue with a mix of cream and bitter (always the bitter), the latter flavor heightened by the burnt crackle of roasted bean. 

And then the taste passes; you roll your tongue to seek surviving pockets of filling, but they've vanished, a haunted dream; you search for shards of profiterole but find soggy remainders. All that's really left is a memory of the experience: short and sweet and--of course--not a little bitter.

First published in Businessworld 4.24.14

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