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One of the major draws for the Chattanooga Film Festival was “Mood Indigo” by Michael Gondry, who is known for films like “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep.”
The Gondry films I have seen all have a dreamlike quality to them, with scenes that are almost more interested in texture and the inexplicable rather than story. “Mood Indigo” wasn’t much different—it was a visual film where what happens isn’t as important as how something happens. Gondry films are vivid and vibrant, entertaining enough in short bursts, but ultimately pointless. In fact, not having a point seems to almost be the point.
This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation. There have always been directors who favor style over substance, as is understandable with film being a visual medium. Watching a filmmaker develop a distinct style over the course of several projects is very much like watching a painter mature as an artist over the course of a lifetime. Very few people would call “THX 1188” a great movie, but it stands as visual mile marker for a director who became highly influential in film history. Sometimes films need to be made just to let the director breathe.
Wes Anderson is one such director, who makes highly visual and distinct films with similar themes, and has been criticized for doing so.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is his latest and likely his best film to date. It features his distinct markings: strong, bold use of color, intricate models and playhouse-like sets, wry jabs at the stiffness of the upper classes while celebrating the elegance the lifestyle provides. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” contains all that sets Anderson apart from other directors, but also provides an accessible and entertaining story, one that is both funny and sad. And for once, the sadness isn’t found in the weird, antisocial behaviors of the characters, but in their honest humanity.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a frame story within a frame story. Its setting is a hotel, a sprawling ornate facility that rests on top of a mountain accessible by cable car in the fictional alpine nation of Zubprowka. The country is generically European, perhaps an amalgamation of several different Germanic countries during WWI. There is a looming war in the wings of the action. The realities of the conflict are never truly defined, as it exists only as an unassailable, uncontrollable force against which our protagonists are thrown during the film.
The plot involves a morally questionable but charmingly effete concierge (Ralph Fiennes), one who takes too much pride in his work as the caretaker of his elderly guests, particularly the widowed and lonely. M. Gustave, portrayed expertly by Fiennes, finds himself accused of the murder of one of his clients, an aged and wealthy aristocrat who has written Gustave into her will as recipient of a priceless painting, much to the chagrin of her vulturous family.
What follows is a comedic adventure as Gustave tries to clear his name, always accompanied by Zero, the awkward but eager “lobby boy”. Behind the plot, beyond the absurdity, is the overwhelming power of memory. The emotional impact of the film is found in the storytelling, the recounting of events by the current owner of the now-decayed Grand Budapest, Mr. Mustafa. It is Mustafa who tells this tale to the audience, while he dines in the mostly empty and crumbling expanse of the once-glorious Grand Budapest.
Previous Anderson films have touched on serious emotion, but it was usually overshadowed in favor of stylistic choices by the filmmaker. Films like “The Royal Tennebaums” and “The Life Aquatic” were robbed of true emotional impact by the odd quirkiness of matching red tracksuits and sullen clones of Jacques Cousteau.
Neither of those films was poor by any stretch of the imagination, but they seemed incomplete and somewhat unsatisfying. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a fuller experience by a filmmaker closing in on a masterpiece. This film is more accessible to a wider audience because it tells a better story. The charming whimsy of the characters is easier to accept in a story told through memory. It’s an exaggeration and the audience understands that.
That “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has quietly stayed at the Majestic for so long is evidence of the film’s accessibility for broad audiences. It is financially the most successful Wes Anderson film, for good reason. People keep buying tickets.