#Berlinale Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Berlinale’s opener is a caper only Wes Anderson could have made, but for all its token whimsy and charm, it’s refreshingly dark and bitter. This may be a whizzy picture book adventure tale, but don’t be fooled by the chocolate box look; set just as fascism was spreading across Europe, there’s a complex historical undercurrent, making this easily the most emotionally daring work the director’s made.

It starts off earnestly enough, introduced to a fictional eastern European state called Zubrowka in the 1930s, where atop a craggy spa town, Ralph Fiennes is a celebrated concierge of a huge art deco establishment, a sort of day-glo version of the overlook hotel from The Shining. He’s manicured to perfection, camped up a bright purple suit and effortlessly quaffed, but Fiennes’ M. Gustave is a lonely soul, whose only solace is the beds of the elderly patrons with whom he often sleeps. When one, Tilda Swinton’s elderly Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (this is a Wes Anderson film, after all), is mysteriously killed, Gustave is accused, and sets in motion a cartoonish caper that would make Tintin blush.

Anderson was inspired by the stories of Stefan Zweig, an inter-war novelist popular with continental readers but barely printed these days in English, whose tales whimsy in a mittel-Europa state. Fiennes’ has rarely been funnier or more tender here, using untapped comic charms (his hilarious bit-part in In Bruges notwithstanding) and the chemistry with his sidekick lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) is pitched perfectly. We’re treated to Wes Anderson’s lush monochrome style, filmed in gloriously colourful Academy 4:3, with cardboard-like sets that look a cross between Lubisch and kids versions of Terry Gilliam models from Monty Python.

The darker edges come as surprises. There’s laughter at the sudden splashes of violence, which we haven’t reallz seen before in Anderson’s work, but that serves as an echo of a violence we won’t see, off screen in some other place, in the not-too-distant future. Zero’s mysterious past out of a violent middle-eastern conflict even has an echo of Syria, and the conversation when M. Gustave accuses him of being an “uncivilised immigrant” is has a sensational satirical edge to it.

That’s not to say the film isn’t as jolly as much of Anderson’s recent output: the director has an unrivalled cast in both his regular comics – Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and, of course, Bill Murray – as well as parts for the brilliant Jeff Goldblum as the family lawyer, replete with a Sigmund Freud beard, plus Saiorse Ronan, F Murray Abraham and even Jude Law.

It’s strange that when I saw Moonrise Kingdom a few years back, I reckoned it was one of Anderson’s best because it was smaller and a more controlled plot than his previous few films. But here I think Anderson’s daring is the size of his canvas. It’s as skilled an evocation of pre-World War II Europe as, say Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, another film in which its main plot is seemingly unrelated and yet irrevocably linked to future devastation. Perhaps it’s the closest Wes Anderson’s going to come to a Holocaust movie?

Berlinale: The big picture(s)

Berlin’s cinematic behemoth, the annual Berlin International Film Festival, returns this week with over 400 films from across the globe. The Berlinale always finds a mixture of the prestige of Cannes (twenty films compete for its top prize, the Golden Bear), and the sprawling public-access inclusivity that defines festivals like London’s – it’s glitzy and yet down to earth, and tickets (which always sell fast) sell from just €4.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

 
The fest opens big with Wes Anderson’s new work, The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Ralph Fiennes as a concierge of an inter-war Eastern European hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. The film stars no fewer than 14 previously Oscar-nominated actors, from Bill Murray to Saiorse Ronan and Adrien Brody, and on the basis of its trailer looks to out-Wes most of Wes Anderson’s quirky recent work.

George Clooney is also due at the festival with his new film The Monuments Men, about a group of art experts (including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville) going behind enemy lines in World War II to save some of the continent’s most precious art. Germany’s difficult past also features in a startling new showcase of British propaganda film about the Nazi’s concentration camps filmed by allies of the Psycolgocial Warfare Division towards the end of the war. Pieced together by the Imperial War Museum, the film was never released in the UK as intended, even though Alfred Hitchcock reportedly worked on the picture.

With a festival so sprawling it can be difficult finding a link between the works, but many of the raft of films are features looking at a world whose foundations are shifting. Festival chief Dieter Kosslick told Euronews that “We see a lot of films about ‘land grabbing’. We see a lot about people who are in migration and are not paid correctly and we see the whole disaster of globalisation”.

I’m especially looking forward to young Vietnamese director Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh’s Nuoc, which shows a world in which global warming has led sea levels to flood half the world’s arable land, and how multinational companies profit from the misery of masses. Screening too is Jehane Noujaim’s Tahir Square docudrama The Square, and recent Greek cinema’s assessment of its country’s social and economic plight continues with Yannis Economides’ thought-provoking hitman thriller Stratos. There’s also Diego Luna’s biopic of American activist Cesar Chavez, and Shadow Days, about rural life and the one-child policy in a modernising China, one of a number of films being presented in Berlin from the country.

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Jack O’Connell in ’71

As is often the case at the Berlinale, LGBT themes strike high on the list of the festival’s priorities, films of which compete for the Teddy award on LGBT topics. Fresh from Sundance, Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange screens at the festival, with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an ageing gay couple in New York forced to live apart. Australian film 52 Tuesdays tells the story of a mother’s decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, filmed over the course of a year – on Tuesdays. And Fucking Different XXY is a confrontational short film compilation by seven of the world’s foremost transgender filmmakers.

British interest is met by the Ken Loach, director of Kes and My Name is Joe, who is to receive an honorary Golden Bear. Loach won his Cannes Palme d’Or for Irish civil war-set The Wind that Shakes the Barley, so could there be a top Berlin award for British director Yann Demange’s,’71, set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles? The film stars Skins and This is England alumnus Jack O’Connell who will soon be seen in the excellent Starred Up which screened at last year’s London Film Festival. Scottish musical God Help The Girl also features, starring Emily Browning and another Skins graduate Hannah Murray. And there’s a new Nick Hornby adaptation in the shape of A Long Way Down, in which Pierce Brosnan, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette and Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul feature as a quartet who meet at the top of a tall building just as they each decide against committing suicide.

In other highlights, Lars von Trier finally unveils the uncut version of his erotic epic Nymphomaniac Part I. Last time he took the effort to attend a festival, he was declared persona non grata at Cannes, so if he does decide to turn up, do expect fireworks. There’s also Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson, John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to the hilarious The Guard, and the intriguing The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, in which the controversial author plays himself after being taken from his home by gangsters, suddenly finding himself happy away from his strenousous life as a French celebrity.

My pick of the festival remains, however, is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an enormously ambitious drama filmed in Texas over 11 years about an estranged couple (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) raising their son. I’m hoping for a blend of The Tree of Life and Michael Apted’s Up series, and the rave reviews from Sundance mark this as one to watch. See you in Berlin!

 

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