The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a dizzying medley of all that is finest in Wes Anderson’s films. Which is to say, if you aren’t a fan already this is highly unlikely to convert you. Except, perhaps, by virtue of its pace. A madcap escalation of stories within stories, episodic incidents, arch dialogue, eccentric characters, and musical staging, all set against his familiar tableau compositions, Anderson’s latest film is an irresistible feast that serves its final course long before you’re in danger of feeling bloated. One might argue this isn’t a terribly deep film, its undercurrents shy of announcing themselves too forcefully, but then Anderson’s is surface detail of the highest order.
The director’s films are generally suffused with a melancholy at odds with the featherweight whimsy in which they revel. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception in this regard. But, there’s an additional factor at work here. Through fully embracing characters and scenarios that speak in bold and cartoonish broad strokes, Anderson has taken a further step away from any semblance of naturalism, seemingly emboldened to present exactly the heightened milieu he favours by his (not wholly successful, depending on your love of the Roald Dahl source material) recent foray into animation, The Fantastic Mr Fox. His closest previous live action approximation to this kind of hermetically fashioned world is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but that picture beached through a listless lack of forward momentum. Hotel has pace and energy in abundance. Its ensemble sensibility, focused on a single character around whom the others revolve, recalls his best film The Royal Tenenbaums, and this is his best film since. It may not have the heart of that picture, but one would have to ignore Hotel’s distinctive and abundant merits to see that as a deficiency.
I won’t attempt to sound knowledgeable about Anderson’s inspiration, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (tie-in, repackaged highlights of his work have been published in the wake of film’s release). Anderson sets the bulk of Hotel in the 1930s, when Zweig was at the height of his popularity. He was the world’s most translated author, although he never caught on in Britain and has even received some particularly his share of scathing critiques (as, of course, some dissenters have accused Anderson of a pervading lack of substance); “each sentence incredibly pretentious, false and empty – the whole thing a complete void”. The director has taken the film’s Russian doll structure from the author; a tale within a tale within a tale. A girl in the present day reads a memoir at the memorial of its author. Said author is then seen in 1985 in the form of Tom Wilkinson, who relates his encounter in 1968, in the form of Jude Law, with the Hotel’s owner Zero Moustafa (the splendid F Murray Abraham, finally getting some big screen roles lately deserving of his talents). In turn, Zero recounts how he came to inherit the Hotel (a dilapidated, undernourished establishment in the ’60s). It is at this point events displace to 1932, where concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, enters the scene; a time when Zero (Tony Revolori) is a mere bellhop.
Anderson has little interest in realism or authenticity; mood and tone is everything. So M. Gustave is the epitome of English etiquette and manners, a more animated take on Jeeves whose veneer is periodically shattered when he reveals the existentially despairing and sometimes uncouth sentiments beneath (which are made all the more amusing for Fiennes’ mannered, fey delivery). Edward Norton appears as Henckels of the military police, nursing his native accent. And why not? The hotel is located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka after all, a realm identified by architecture and machinery that look almost exactly like models (because that’s what they are). Anderson delights in the artifice of his world; there are underlying themes concerning the rise of fascism, intruding on this just-so idyll (Zweig committed suicide in 1942, despairing at the fate that had befallen Europe), but they are never allowed to overpower Hotel’s studied frivolousness. I was going to express the sad resignation that it takes an American to write a lovely caricature of English starch and entitlement these days, probably due to pervading middle class embarrassment at the implications of espousing such airs and presumptions. But he co-wrote the script with British artist Hugo Guinness. Still, the general point remains. The truth is, much of the best British comedy is to be found in variants on rotters, cads, scoundrels and bounders, a celebration and evisceration of shallow aristocracy, from Terry-Thomas and Dennis Price to Peter Cook and the Python/Oxbridge set of the ’60s and beyond. Now posh means Michael McIntyre. The hilarity of Fiennes’ Gustav is that his persona is now fresh and novel; his inflections and deportment are rarely seen outside of Heritage dramas these days.
Anyone who has glimpsed Anderson’s curious fashion sense and general demeanour will be quickly convinced the man reflects the idiosyncrasy of his films. Even if Gustav is based in part on Zweig, Anderson is putting something of himself into the character; a man whom M. Ivan (Bill Murray) reflects wasn’t even of his time in his time; he summons a bearing based on an idealised interpretation of his world and his place in it, and won’t be swerved (mostly) by intrusive and gnarly realities. And Anderson has a lot of fun both venerating Gustav and depicting his peccadillos. He is outwardly unflappable, the picture of gentility. Yet he also takes pride in servicing the elderly residents of the Hotel (one of whose devotion, Madame D played by Tilda Swinton, in some very impressive old age prosthetics, sets in motion the chain of events in question). His slightly camp demeanour lends Gustav an indeterminate sexuality, remarked on disparagingly by Dmitri (Adrien Brody) the son of the ex-Madame D, requiring him to defend himself in prison, and provoking the jealousy of Zero when he flirts with his beloved Agatha (Sairose Ronan using, of course, her natural accent). His greeting of “darling” has the theatrical abandon of a luvvie, and this larger than life inscrutability is the perfect centre to Anderson’s outlandish story. Even when Gustav’s facade crumbles, despairing over the meaninglessness of life or losing it in a confessional booth, the pleasure comes from seeing that composure demolished while his cadences remain intact. Then there’s his love of poetry; his daily sermons to staff include daily recitals during which an uninterested congregation are not expected to pay attention. This simultaneous elegance and mockery encompass Hotel, identifying the picture as a comedy of opposites. Anderson is much more willing than before to play with extremes, be it of manners and vulgarity or civility and violence.
If the man out of time quality lends the picture a tinge of sadness, the framing device serves to emphasises this. Times pass, entropy increases; we no longer fit in with the changing tomes and crumble or decay. Anderson captures this through showing the extremes of age, and the ungraspable nostalgia for a time that probably didn’t exist (Moonrise Kingdom is awash with this, and at times its depiction of young love carries a slightly uncomfortable vibe). But I disagree with those who suggest it’s a more persistent theme here; it’s merely more identifiable because Anderson has established broader tonal boundaries. I quite recall the same criticisms with each of his new films; that he’s stylistically distinct but essentially vacuous. Or the ones who say finally, this one shows he has some depth after all. And I can only conclude you either dig his style and personality or you don’t. It’s no use hoping he’ll “mature” or find a different voice. If you ask for that you’re looking for the wrong thing from the wrong filmmaker (not dissimilarly, those suggesting Tarantino has any depth, or that his films are about anything, are barking up the wrong tree).
Indeed, while Anderson has clearly honed his skills he admirably appears to have little interest in developing his technique; he knows what he likes in terms of framing and (lack of) camera movement. His choice to use three different aspect ratios, reflecting the different time frames, is noticeable but not distracting, which is how it should be really (no one I saw the film commented on this, if they even consciously noticed the changes). Anderson doesn’t attempt to imbue any great psychology into his choice, it’s purely aesthetic and instructive of the narrative form; I’ve seen the case made that the 1:37:1 of the main body of the film reflects the typical aspect ratio of films of that period (1930s) and accordingly 2:35:1 widescreen resembles the grand productions of the 1960s, while 1:85:1 for the 1985 and present scenes is indicative of the modern standard format. That may be the case, although Anderson doesn’t seem to have endorsed that view per se, but the latter two are surely somewhat arbitrary and interchangeable since each is as commonly used in either era. Anderson’s choices were based on a desire to shoot in the Academy ratio, for its compositional possibilities; additional interpretation seems like overlaying meaning to an extent.
Notably, he has said he hadn’t realised how slow-paced the opening time frames are in comparison to the mayhem of the 1930s section but that it seemed completely appropriate in context – and it does. I think that’s illustrative. For all the fine crafting Anderson is no more inviting of elaborate readings of sustained subtexts, themes and compositional elements than, say, the Coen Brothers. Robert D. Yeoman, Anderson’s regular cinematographer lends the images a richness that recalls Jean Pierre Jeunet. Composer Alexandre Desplat clearly needs to be guided or inspired to do his best work. His score for the recent The Monuments Men is horrible, but this is great stuff, perfectly complementing his director’s pacing and tone (there are a number of singularly different songs and pieces from other musicians also, typically of the director).
Fiennes is the glue of the film; he informs its attitude and (obviously, it’s an Anderson film) quirkiness. Those around him are accordingly little more than amused caricatures and cameos. On the one hand, so many great performers have rarely been used to so little end (Murray barely registers, even though it’s always nice to see him). On the other, the constant parade of familiar faces is a delirious delight. Besides Murray, Monuments Men co-star Bob Balaban turns up for a scene (The Society of the Crossed Keys sequence, featuring a steady succession of concierges to come to the aid of one of their own, is a comic highlight and includes Fisher Stevens and Anderson semi-regular Waris Ahluwalia amongst its faces). Of the Anderson regular-regulars, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman appear as concierges; there’s something very resonant of the latter’s general pose and air in Revolori’s Zero. The biggest problem with these actors is that you’re left wanting more. Léa Seydoux, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel (randomly presenting himself as at-very-least topless in his prison scenes). Anderson may have hit upon Adrien Brody’s most perfect physical depiction, his gangly frame exaggerated by a tailored greatcoat and a wild mess of sky bound hair. He’d look at home in Disney’s 101 Dalmations. It’s fun to see him acting the villain too, since he’s often called on to supply doleful sympathy. We don’t see nearly enough of Edward Norton, and Henckels is a little too close temperamentally to the scout master in Moonrise Kingdom; Anderson needs to give him the full Brody treatment next time out.
Aside from Fiennes, and his double act with the devoted Revolori (who, as the straight man, gets none of the credit but should be congratulated for his deceptively simple work), the two actors who make the biggest splash are also from the Anderson repertory company. Both also appeared in Life Aquatic. Perhaps it’s just because I always find them a pleasure to watch, but there just isn’t enough of them. Jeff Goldblum throws out less of the pauses and inflected speech patterns than usual as Deputy Kovacs but he makes no less of an impression (including in a scene that… well, with this and Inside Llewyn Davis it doesn’t seem to be felines’ year in film; perhaps worrying also that they’re also my favourites of 2014 so far). Then there’s Willem Defoe, enjoying himself immensely in dogged psycho mode with a touch of the vampiric (he also gets some great extended motorcycle shots).
Defoe’s Joplin is key to one of the film’s best sequences, although there are so many it’s difficult to single any out. The pursuit of a freshly prison-broken Gustav takes in only-in-Anderson-land cable cars and high flung monasteries before arriving at an extended chase of Joplin that wouldn’t look out of place in Fantastic Mr Fox. There’s a larky Road Runner quality here, in particular the showdown with Joplin. That Mr Fox feel is also very evident in the preceding prison break, which sees the inmates follow a truly ridiculous route to freedom. The sudden lurches into ultra-violence are a strange departure for the refined director. But they are still shot with the signature remove of an unobtrusive and rigid camera; which serves to make the joke an extra sick one, a punch line where you didn’t expect it.
It won’t be long before Wes Anderson celebrates twenty years of (big screen) movie making, so it’s nice to see how he has expanded his audience of late; rather than redefining a niche, there appears to be a guaranteed reception for whatever he has to offer. Before it seemed a little bit as if The Royal Tenenbaums would remain the never to be repeated breakout success. The Grand Budapest Hotel looks to be his highest grossing film yet (worldwide). It’s easy to see why as it’s his most accessible, vibrant and star-laden. It’s a much-deserved hit too, since this is one of his best. If Hotel doesn’t make regular appearances in the year’s end Top Ten lists it will only serve to highlight what a great year it’s been.