Talking Pictures

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The Grand Budapest Hotel, USA / Germany 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2014


This is the eighth film directed by Wes Anderson and it appears to have enjoyed the most lavish marketing campaign of any of his productions. I saw the trailer [about six times] at every cinema I visited over several weeks. This appears to have paid off. I have seen the film twice. Even at afternoon performances there were reasonable audiences. I saw it once at the Hyde Park Picture House and they had had over 200 in for the previous evening’s performance. I saw it a second time at the National Media Museum and they were also enjoying good audiences. On both occasions that I saw the film the audience appeared to have enjoyed the 100 minutes of entertainment. And people I spoke to afterwards were very positive about the film.

The film is An American Empirical Picture, Anderson’s own production company. It is partly funded by the Independent Indian Paintbrush, which has a long-term relationship with Anderson. And it is distributed by Fox Searchlight, which has had the rights to several of Anderson’s recent films.

This is a recognisable Anderson film. The main setting is in a created world, Mittel-Europe in the 1930s.  Appropriately the film’s production was based at the Babelsburg Studio. This created world is presented in a mainly naturalistic manner but it is no no way a realistic world. It is much closer to the Hollywood worlds of screwball comedy and the melodramas of a director like Ernest Lubitsch. The credits include a dedication to the writer Stefan Zweig. And the world in the film is as artificial as that in the adaptation by Max Ophuls of Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948). But Anderson’s ironic picture is much more playful and less melodramatic that that of Ophuls.

Most reviews draw parallels with the films of Lubitsch. Whilst intriguingly a review by Edward Lawrenson (Reprinted in The Big Issue in the North) draws a parallel with the 1930s adventure films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially The Lady Vanishes (UK 1935). Anderson, like many of his contemporary filmmakers, loves to include film references and homage in his work. I was reminded at one point of the UK films, Crooks Anonymous (1962) and then of Where Eagles Dare (1969).

There are cameos by well-known actors like Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel. And the new faces, like Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, are equally good at the deadpan tendency in performance elicited by Anderson.

The film style, with the emphasis on artifice and the quirky, is instantly familiar. Much of this is engineered with traditional film effects, though there is also an amount of CGI, especially in the climatic sequence. The film has the longest set of digital effect credits that I have seen in a film by Anderson. One less successful innovation is the introduction of changing aspect ratios. The contemporary opening of the film is in 1.85:1. The following introduction to the fictional Author (the older version, Tom Wilkinson) of the fictional book is 1.85:1 letter-boxed within the larger frame. The flashback when the Author (the younger version, Jude Law) has the main story recounted by Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is in 2.39:1. Whilst the actual central story is presented in 1.37:1. Some reviews give 1.33:1, but this was the main ratio of the silent era. Perhaps that accounts for a couple of reviews that erroneously suggest that the main story takes place in the 1920s. There is a clear on screen title, ‘1932’. I did not think that the variable ratios were very effective. Both projectionists I spoke to had used the 1.85:1 screen. So for much of the time the matting on the full screen surrounded the actual framed image. Indeed in some sequences with a softer focus the divide between image and matte was unclear.

I also felt that whilst the film had more outright humour than in other Anderson films, that this was at the expense of substance. My favourite film by Wes Anderson is Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Whilst I enjoyed the ironic portrayals that make up much of that film I also developed a keen interest in the fate of the characters. At one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel the anonymous Author observes a patron in the lobby suffering a stroke. As he turns to the lift he remarks that ‘it did not concern me’. I had a rather similar sense by the film‘s resolution. However, the film is vastly entertaining, it has some impressive visual and aural sequences and the cast perform with great aplomb.


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