I have an old friend who grew up in the years before World War II living in the grand hotels of Europe, where his father was a film salesman. He regaled me with tales of his adventures in these fashionable hostelries, with unlimited room service, obliging concierges and lots of raffish characters hanging around the lobbies. I was reminded of this when I watched the wonderful new film by Director Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel, which opened in Los Angeles this week. I have been a fan of this director for several years, so I was at the Landmark theatre on the first night and intend to see the film again when it plays at the Academy Theatre.
What's so exciting about it? Well, first is the cast. Imagine a movie which is populated by Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Adrian Brody, William Defoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori and Bob Balaban. Then there is the story -- a wild and funny plot involving a crime caper, a chase, a seduction and more. I had the honor of producing Billy Wilder's last film (Buddy, Buddy, starring jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), and I said to my companions that this is a film which Billy would have relished. My date said it reminded her of the best of Old Hollywood, of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Smart girl, her. It certainly is the most ambitious movie that Wes has attempted, and another friend commented it was enchanting and heartbreaking in equal measure. The setting is a luxurous hotel in a corner of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in a fictional country called Zubrowka, which is, of course, Hungary.
Again, a personal reference: I once co-produced a Cinerama wide-screen film in Budapest, Hungary (The King's Crown, which starred a hilarious Buddy Hackett and George Sanders; it never was released for legal/political reasons. In the city of Buda, I stayed at a hotel, the Gellert, which may have been a model for the hotel in the movie.)
The new film begins in the recent past when a writer reminisces about his youth, and then cuts to a period in the 30s when a teenage lobby boy/bellhop (played by a very impressive Tony Revolori) is instructed in the hotel trade by a redoubtable concierge, M. Gustave H., played with superb assurance by Ralph Fiennes. This leading part is a tour-de-force for Fiennes, who is depicted as a fey character -- he is the "most liberally perfumed man, ever," who seduces the much-older wealthy women who stay in the hotel, especially the 84-year-old Grand Dowager Countess Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe and Taxis, usually known as Madame D, Tilda Swinton (with pounds of aging makeup to hide her astonishing beauty. It is something of a travesty to make this exquisite creature unrecognizable. Last night on Charlie Rose, the director said that he first offered the role to Angela Lansbury, who was not available, before turning to his friend Tllda.)
Madame D dies and leaves a priceless stolen Renaissance painting ("Boy with Apple") to Fiennes, and that's when the real fun starts. Her family accuses the concierge of murder; he is imprisoned and then escapes, which leads to chases and such. Fiennes never loses his smirking bravado as he barks orders to the youthful Zero, something of the hero of the piece as he slowly sheds his shyness and assumes control of the situation while wooing the town's teen-age baker. The real friendship between the concierge and the boy is the crux of the movie. My Huffington readers may recall my recent rave review of Fiennes as the dynamic Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Here, he even exceeds that.
Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori All photos from Fox Searchlight.
I must note that Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, shot the various time periods in different film aspect ratios, which subtly affects the feel of the scenes. Wide screen for 1968, 1.85 for the later action, then the Academy ratio of 1.33 for the main flashback to 1932 gives a sense of period to the scenes within a scene. The soundtrack musical score by Alexandre Desplat is perfect for the stacatto action. Visual artist Hugo Guinness contributed to the story, which was inspired by the writings of famed author Stefan Zweig (who committed suicide in 1942 because he thought that European culture had been destroyed by the Nazism). Producers were Anderson, the incredible Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson. The magnificent costumes by the wondrous Milena Canonero, and superb production design by Adam Stockhausen, contributed to the magnificent sense of reality.
Tilda Swinton plays the aged countess, here with Fiennes.
The actors, like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban, appear briefly for quick, amusing cameos as other hotel concierges belonging to the ultra-secret Society of Crossed Keys. Balaban told the Hollywood Reporter that actors love to work with Anderson because he has such a distinctive vision. "Everybody wants to work with Wes as much as possible because you know that whatever movie he's making is going to be something special and unique."
I must note that I lovingly reviewed Wes's last film Moonrise Kingdom, which I said was a charming exposition of youthful coming-of-age; I railed against its being ignored by the majority of critics at award time. And who couldn't roar at The Royal Tenebaums? (Though I dismissed his The Darjeeling Limited as a failed effort). This, his eighth feature, is an elegant action-comedy-farce which, in its colorful period pastiche, is certainly eccentric, an idiosyncratic montage of farcical adventure which is so highly original, flamboyant and inventive (hand-scrawled chapter headings) that I can happily forgive its occasional story lapses and excesses.
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Wes Anderson is the enormously talented director.
As a film producer, I have always been intrigued by the 44-year-old Texan's systematic way of working, storyboarding the whole film through animatics, gathering the cast in one location to have culinary feasts and keeping the camaraderie going. I have read that he shot the film over 10 weeks in Berlin and the small town of Gorlitz, Germany, on the Polish border, and he hired a cook to prepare feasts for the cast and crew assembled in one hotel there. They used an abandoned department store as the interior set for the film.
The two leads again.
Fox Searchlight may have its work cut out for it to reach the sophisticated audience which will truly relish this filmic extravaganza, but coming off the success of their 12 Years a Slave, I am confident they can pull it off. I can only urge my Huffington readers to rush pell-mell to a nearby theatre to have a truly wonderful cinematic experience.
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