Monday, May 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

THE GRANT BUDAPEST HOTEL is Anderson's most emotionally sophisticated feature. It falls somewhere in between the overt formalism of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and the looser structures of THE LIFE AQUATIC. In situating himself between these poles of his own technique, Anderson illustrates a more subtle control over the emotional trajectory of the film, even as his overt style seems bigger and more in your face than before (as some friends have complained). The affective qualities are not limited to particular sequences or cathartic buildup, but in a cumulative assemblage of interlacing time-frames, memories, and storytelling. This is different from Anderson's traditional story-within-a-story frameworks that mediates his style through specific formats (novels, storybooks, films, theater) in that the narratives are the provinces of subjective memories that must be traversed in order to arrive at particular locations. These are also different than the many forms of flashbacks that Anderson has used to reveal the hidden emotional traumas of his characters, as in THE DARJEELING LIMITED.

Consider the opening sequence which moves through layers of historical locations in order to arrive at the 'story': beginning with a modern day statue of a deceased author with a younger reader under its purview, to the 1980s were the author tells of his chance meeting with a mysterious figure, to the 1960s where a younger variation of said author happens to meet Zero, wherein Zero allows the author to hear his story, which takes the viewer further back into the 1930s. The further back into history/memory we go, the more deliberately artificial the style becomes. But even though the 1930s provides the meat of the film, the other periods, no matter how briefly we are in them, are not just narrative devices to frame the story proper. Instead, they are crucial lenses that shape the emotional movements of the entire film.

What I found to be the most affecting of this strategy is how Anderson deals with death and loss in this picture. These Anderson mainstays are here divided into two distinguishable categories:

Death is obvious. Several characters (and a cat) are gruesomely murdered in a manner that adds an ontological shock to the Lubitsch period trappings of the BUDAPEST aesthetic. Death is murder, rendered through severed body parts that are grizzly, yet still in line with the studio-bound artifice of the style. These are limited to small roles on the periphery of the main characters Zero and Gustave and are as humorous as they are macabre. Severed fingers, decapitated heads, bodies flung to their deaths from high altitudes. The notable exception here is the instigating and mysterious death of Madame D., whose body is displayed in photographic evidence as well as in her casket. No body parts are severed. But the stiff corporeality of her deceased form is lingered on and mulled over.

But loss is quite different. Loss occurs off screen, shrouded in flashback and flash-forwards. Loss happens to Zero; that is, people that are important to his emotional being die and leave him with the sense of loss. Anderson depicts this trauma as a visual rupture that cannot be articulated. Two characters die off screen, leaving the one who cared about them to carry their stories with them. The manner in which they die is also treated with less immediate importance as the side characters: one is shot, the other falls ill. But Anderson treats these details as secondary to the more crucial fact that they are no longer among the living. We also never see them age in the way we do with Zero and the author. Their images are crystallized in Zero's mind. The loss of these figures is associated by Zero with the materials that defined them, the fetishized objects and locales that Anderson is famous for. Fetish here is reflective of the character's own attachment to physical things that the characters cannot let go of, namely the titular hotel of this film's setting.

Because of the persistence of memory there is no dichotomy of present day and historical past. They are linked and must be traversed together in order to arrive at particular points in the narrative. Anderson treats them like fluid layers constantly folding back onto themselves. While THE LIFE AQUATIC remains my personal favorite of his work, THE GRAND BUDAPEST illustrates Anderson going in directions unseen by his previous films.

images: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson / 2014)