If there’s a dominant theme in Wes Anderson’s strange and whimsical new comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—as well as most of his other films—it is that of chaos in a world of order. And never is order more enforced than its true main character, the titular, imagined luxury edifice in eastern Europe.
Like Anderson’s filmic style, the Grand Budapest Hotel is regimented to a T. It’s a bastion of perfect symmetry, though in its “modern” state, as the movie opens, it’s considered an “enchanting old ruin.” Most of the action takes place in flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to 1985, then 1968, then 1932 and back again. Within these eras, most of Anderson’s visuals contain well-ordered frames, and frames within frames—geometric obstructions through which the characters must navigate to survive. Even the film’s screen can be a hindrance to Anderson’s creations. Anal as ever, Anderson uses all three commonly utilized aspect ratios in this film, from the standard widescreen 1:85:1 (in the 1985 segments) to the CinemaScope 2:35:1 (in the ’68 story) to, most prominently, the classic, square 1:33:1 (in the 1932 tale), with each decision reflecting the dominant canvas shape of its cinematic time period.
If all this technical jargon is boring to read, rest assured that the film isn’t boring to watch. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may be an endless fount of postmodern (and pre-modern) formal self-consciousness, but at its core, it’s a grand adventure, or perhaps a grand illusion. Once the movie’s boggling framing device finds a groove in the 1932 story, we’re off to the races: A young lobby boy named “Zero” (Tony Revolori), who fled a genocide to find employment at the Grand Budapest, is befriended by Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s dandyish, heavily perfumed concierge. They soon become partners-in-crime after the death of a beloved guest (and elderly lover of Gustav) leads to a run-in with the guest’s bloodthirsty kin (embodied by Adrien Brody’s mustachioed, black-smocked devil) and a stolen painting. From then on, the film becomes a classic wrong-man adventure tale in the Hitchcock mold, with Gustav and Zero tempting fate in one ostentatious set piece after another. There are minor heroes (Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, and Mathieu Amalric play them), minor villains (Willem Dafoe plays one) and some characters that probably fall in both camps (look to Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel), but the film’s dramatic pendulum always swings back to Gustav and Zero, whose bond brings at least a semblance of real emotion to Anderson’s detached, ironic style—something that cannot be said for all of the director’s arch meta-experiments.
The end result may not be a bastion of depth and substance, but neither is “North by Northwest,” and that’s a picture that is taught in film classes. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” may similarly be studied frame-by-frame one day, and in the meantime it’s the most breezily enjoyable movie of the year so far; it’s gratuitously expensive but laugh-out-loud funny, a singularly offbeat tribute to an obscure Viennese writer (Stefan Zweig) that appropriately revels in its own esotericism. Just as one character remarks of Gustav that “his world vanished long before he entered it,” so too is “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an anachronism for a wonderful type of movie that hasn’t existed in decades—if it ever did. If it takes a lot of heavy audience-winking to get there, so be it.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens Friday at most area theaters.
Catherine Deneuve, still stunning at age 70, is the subject, object and raison d’etre of “On My Way,” the second feature film directed by French actress Emmanuelle Bercot. It’s a testament to her loveliness then and now. One of the first images in the film is a grainy black-and-white photo of a young Deneuve donning a sash; her character, Bettie, was a regional beauty queen in the ‘60s, a title that never landed her anywhere or anything. These days, she’s a widowed restaurateur who lives with her mother and whose lover has just rejected her. She has one daughter with whom she almost never speaks.
During a solitary walk on the beach, the memory of her beauty-pageant days flits across her consciousness like a passing insect, and for good reason: She’s been asked to lend her current looks to a nostalgic calendar honoring other French beauty queens from the period. She doesn’t want to accept, but she’ll have plenty of time to change her mind. About 20 minutes into the film, Bettie drives off into the bucolic countryside, unplugging from family and friends and resulting in a sometimes fascinating, sometimes somnolent series of vignettes that form the lion’s share of “On My Way.”
Among the highlights: She has a poignant conversation with an elderly man who rolls her a cigarette she isn’t supposed to smoke; she watches a husband beat his wife in a restaurant, only to find her assistance rebuffed by both; she has a one-night stand with a scrappy young cougar fetishist. The aimless road eventually leads to her estranged daughter and her adorable grandson, and some unexpected bonding.
Liberated from traditional movie structure, “On My Way” is best when it, like Bettie, doesn’t seem to know where it’s going—the magic and the mystery are in the ramble of the open road. But eventually, as the film settles into a familiar comfort zone, it becomes increasingly less interesting, with its overlong final act wrapping everything up in an implausibly perfect package. But at least we always have Deneuve to admire, in a role that, for a change, is as meaty as it is lovely. “You’ll be beautiful in your coffin,” Bettie’s daughter says, with the right balance of jealousy and sarcasm. Ain’t that the truth.
“On My Way” opens Friday at Regal Shadowood and Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, and Movies of Lake Worth. It opens March 28 at Coral Gables Art Cinema.