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Berlin Film Festival kicks off in Grand Budapest style

Berlin Film Festival

The Berlinale has sometimes struggled to hold the cinema world’s attention amid flashier, more selective or feverishly attended film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Toronto and Sundance.


in Berlin

But things looked good here as the event kicked off Thursday, thanks to some serendipitous weather (blue sky, mild temperatures), that famous German efficiency (ample staff, punctual screening start times), and a terrific opening to the competition.

One of the most eagerly awaited works of this year’s line-up, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the latest concoction from US writer-director Wes Anderson, whose deadpan humour and dollhouse aesthetic tend to split viewers into two camps: the irritated and the enraptured.

I’ve gone up and down with Anderson. He carved out a sweet spot in American cinema with his first three films, “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (still his most indelible achievement), strangled us with whimsy in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited”, then recovered nicely with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom”.

His newest movie has many of the trappings one has come to expect from Anderson: an eclectic ensemble (Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, and, as always, Bill Murray); painstakingly colour-coded, symmetrical compositions and precise horizontal and vertical camera movements; chapter headings and droll dialogue filled with non-sequiturs.

But “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, which revolves around a hotel concierge (Fiennes) in a fictional European country during the lead-up to World War II, registers as a subtle shift in the director’s trajectory. It’s Anderson’s darkest work yet – and, despite its far-off setting, one of his most hauntingly personal.

Ralph Fiennes as a concierge with a taste for older women

At the film’s centre is one of the most original and captivating protagonists Anderson has ever created: Gustave H. (Fiennes, in what may be his wittiest performance to date), an imperious, poetry-quoting professional, alternately uptight and extremely naughty, who oversees the staff of the sumptuous Grand Budapest Hotel and tends to its most prestigious guests.

One of those guests, a rich old dowager (played by Swinton with ghoulish aging makeup and a mouthful of fake teeth), dies and leaves her most valuable painting to Gustave, who was her lover. He made her happy at the end of her life, she writes in her will. The feeling was mutual; not only does Gustave admit to a preference for older women, he also sees the aristocrats he “serves” as his friends -- and, as he adds without an ounce of cheekiness, “I go to bed with all my friends”.

Of course, the dowager’s family, led by her budding fascist of a son (Brody), disapproves, and soon Gustave is on the run with the police close behind him. Helping him every step of the way is his protégé Zero Moustafa (played by newcomer Tony Revolori, adapting perfectly to the gentle absurdism of Planet Anderson), a recently hired “lobby boy” and immigrant from an unnamed war-torn country.

Their friendship is the film’s tender heart, and its most dramatically rich narrative strand by far. If Zero views Gustave with filial admiration and affection, Gustave’s feelings for Zero are less clear, occasionally seeming to convey the slightest shiver of erotic longing (there are several jokey references to Gustave’s supposed bisexuality). The pair is so much fun to watch that it’s a shame Anderson doesn’t linger on them even more. Instead, he keeps things moving at a madcap pace -- assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s buoyant score -- with chase scenes, an amusingly staged jailbreak, and a romantic interest for Zero (Ronan, as a sweet young baker).

A personal statement from Anderson

Still, the briskness and energy of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are in large part what prevent the director’s fastidious visual style from sucking all the air out of the film, as it has done at times in the past. Anderson’s shots are held for just long enough, and packed with just enough detail, to lure us into a bubble of decaying grandeur that, like the imagined New York City of “The Royal Tenenbaums”, feels both foreign and familiar. Indeed, the hotel, with its intricate ornamentation, endless corridors and deep-red elevator, as well as the Eastern European locales beyond it (shadowy streets and steep, snow-covered mountains with gliding funiculars) are so richly conceived that you may find yourself wanting to crawl inside the frame to explore.

Most of all, you’ll want to spend more time with Gustave. He may represent a crumbling system, the fading way of life of the ruling class, but with his obsessive attention to form and minutiae, unusual sexual proclivities, and resistance to the trends of the day (in this case, the savage forces that would sweep a continent), he’s an “Andersonian” outsider through and through.

A prissy aesthete and an undercover eccentric, Gustave is also, of course, Anderson himself. The character’s fierce devotion to the hermetic glory of the hotel amid seismic changes taking hold around it rings like a statement of artistic defiance from the director. “These are the movies I make,” Anderson seems to be saying. “The worlds I show you may not look anything like the world outside, but they’re mine.”

When the result is as good as “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, it’s hard to argue with him.

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