Ring for reception: Tony Revolori as Zero (centre) in Wes Anderson's artfully fake hotel
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Travelling light: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson

Anderson’s style became paralysed around the time of The Royal Tenenbaums and this is no exception.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (15)
dir: Wes Anderson

Each year that passes without an announcement that Ralph Fiennes has agreed to be the lead in a Leonard Rossiter biopic is one to be regretted – but his performance in the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel is the next best thing. Playing Gustave H, a voluble concierge whose fastidious manner gives way to tremors of panic, Fiennes is as skilful at exploring the shortfall between pretence and reality as Rossiter ever was. He can communicate a lifetime of disappointment in the tiniest slackening of the jaw, or a salacious fantasy in the twitch of an eyebrow. He brings mischief and joy to a film that is in most other respects closed off.

Gustave can be demure and earthy, often at the same time, whether boasting about his sexual encounters with an 83-year-old society dame (“I’ve had older”) or cutting short his own reverie on humanity (“Oh, fuck it”). He insists that his staff are spick and span but it seems he could at any moment fall apart. His response to being suspected of murder following the death of his elderly conquest Madame D (Tilda Swinton) is to absorb the news silently, wait a beat, then bolt madly into the distance. But he can regain his pretensions and composure in an instant. Receiving a visitor while in prison, he explains away his purple eye with a fanciful monologue that could just as easily have run: “You should see the other guy . . .”

The death of Madame D and the reading of a will in which she bequeaths a priceless painting to Gustave are the catalysts for a convoluted, caper-style plot that would be as exhausting to recount as it is exasperating to follow. One consolation for a viewer not persuaded by this forced zaniness is the delicate friendship between Gustave and the hotel’s lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). It doesn’t offer any advance on the mad mentor/wise protégé relationships in some of Anderson’s previous movies but it is enchanting in a way the mechanical narrative never is.

The period is 1940s wartime – though what we see are parallel hostilities in a fictional universe, rather than the Second World War. Presumably this is to insulate the comedy from actual suffering. A Wes Anderson film that touched at any point upon reality would scarcely be able to bear his name.

That is not to say that his movies aren’t emotionally alive. Yet a viewer’s tolerance to the arch dialogue, painstakingly composed tableaux and infinitely detailed sets can depend on how much spontaneity and human warmth is allowed to leak in. Anderson’s first two features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, remain his most exhilarating because he was still learning and experimenting; his visual technique had a looseness that offset the tight, literary writing.

Around the time of his third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, his controlled style became paralysed and it has been a matter since then of looking out for occasional vital signs. Pain and longing used to be palpable in his films no matter how manufactured the world he concocted. To compare the unrequited love story in Rushmore with the twee romantic subplot in The Grand Budapest Hotel is like placing a Leonard Cohen lyric next to a Hallmark card.

The intensity of the artifice cuts off most avenues for engagement. Anderson uses ostentatiously fake backdrops to alert us to the facade, just as Fellini did in And the Ship Sails On. The entire picture is built like a nest of Russian dolls, from the script’s triple-flashback structure to the recurring images of windows and trapdoors opening to create separate frames within the film frame. What smothers the comedy is the palpable effort that goes into each set piece or joke. The whimsical tone grows wearisome when the gags fall flat. There are several episodes here, including a prison break and a montage of international concierges (“the Society of Crossed Keys”), in which the space for laughter or admiration may be filled instead by incredulity that Anderson went to so much trouble for such paltry returns.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem