Review by Jason Pirodsky
David Ondříček´s Grandhotel is an odd bird of a film; satisfying neither as comedy or drama, yet moderately interesting and mildly affecting throughout. Ondříček paints a vivid portrait of Liberec as a town where it is either raining or about to rain, where little happens or can be expected to happen. And a masterful set design drenches the film in various shades of pale blues and grays, creating a perfectly subdued atmosphere. Yet these strengths also bring out the biggest weakness of the film – it´s so very low-key, it almost isn´t there. Almost nothing happens, nor do we expect much to happen – only a director like Ozu, I imagine, would be able successfully unearth the subtle profundities hidden in a film like this. But this isn´t the work of Ozu.
Set at the truly grand Hotel Ještěd, a huge spire sticking up from a Liberec mountaintop (looking not unlike the top of the Seattle space needle), the wonderful opening shot features a man hand-gliding past the hotel. “It´s going to rain soon,” shouts Fleischman (Marek Taclík), a weather-obsessed man who lives at the top of the hotel. We´re slowly introduced to Fleischman, an incredibly shy man who has never left the town of Liberec, along with the other characters he interacts with. Jegr (Jaromír Dulava), the sexist manager of the hotel, Zuzana (Dita Zábranská), a maid at the hotel who has feelings for Fleischman, and two other employees, Ilja (Klára Issová) and Patka (Jaroslav Plesl), who have been dating for a number of years.
The characters interact, yes, most of them trying to ‘help´ our poor main character, who is so scared to leave town he even tries handcuffing himself to a bus seat. Yet nothing develops between them until very late in the film, and when it does, it feels much too sudden and arbitrary. There´s no story to speak of; rather, the film feels like a series of vignettes that attempts to reveal layers of each character. They talk, go about their daily routines, the beautiful local weatherwoman spends a night in the hotel, but very little actually happens. The characters themselves do nothing, letting themselves go wherever the story takes them; perhaps not a problem in some movies, but a problem here, when the story doesn´t take them very far.
Drama, for the most part, simply doesn´t come off. When a character is concerned about his ability to have children, he visits a doctor´s office to check his sperm count and is given a cup and a magazine – the pages, of course, stuck together. Amusing, yes, but it also undercuts the drama. Fleischman´s fear of leaving Liberec should provide a nice dramatic curve (given the inevitable conclusion) but instead, most of the scenes of his attempts to leave are played for comedy; the other characters don´t really understand the fear, nor does the audience. A death late in the film seems intended to tug at the heartstrings but also fails to affect much; perhaps due to the muted tone that follows a sudden act, or perhaps, as Robert Altman famously said, “the death of an old man is not a tragedy.”
But there is much to like about the film; despite the failure to turn up something deep, it´s still a noble attempt. A number of scenes stand out – if you haven´t previously seen the Hotel Ještěd, you likely won´t forget it after this movie. And most memorable, and undeniably powerful within the film´s limitations, is the sight a of a patchwork hot air balloon – stiched together by Fleischman – flying over the city of Liberec. This scene alone – a muted emotional climax but an exceptional visual one – is enough to warrant a mild recommendation for the film. If only the scene was followed by a finale that realized its full potential; instead, what we get is ordinary and expected.
Ondříček´s two previous films (Samotáři and Jedna ruka netleská) both worked in fits and starts to provide high points of comedy and drama. Though the overall tone of both films was inconsistent, individual scenes worked well enough to entertain. The director reaches for something much higher here, and although he doesn´t succeed overall, the effort is worth watching. Though not as entertaining as the previous films, it´s more memorable for the visuals, the atmosphere, and the attempt at something grand.