When Wes Anderson’s latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel was released earlier this year to near-universal acclaim, the inner skeptic in me rolled its eyes at the sight of one glowing review after another. “Can it really be this good?” I grumbled internally, fresh from the disappointment of discovering that Moonrise Kingdom was not quite the masterpiece the world had declared it to be. Granted I’ve enjoyed all of Anderson’s movies to date to some extent, but I also find myself firmly ensconced in that group of naysayers that grows increasingly irritated every time he flinches away from anything that resembles depth or emotional resonance, steering the viewer’s focus instead towards a hat, or a tracksuit, or a painting, or a vintage car, or a Dansette record player.
The celebration of those little fixtures and fittings, of course, is one part of a recurring set of Wes Andersonisms, most of which are so predictable now the Houston-born director has become well-and-truly ripe for parodying. Before reading any reviews or even seeing the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel I half-knew what to expect, as did anyone remotely familiar with his oeuvre: the pathological attention to detail that informs the extraordinary production design, the symmetrical framing, the pastel-hued colour palette (and indeed the importance placed on colour more generally), the retrophilia, the constant breaking of the fourth wall, the face-on camera looking at a flat background. Bill Murray. Owen Wilson. Jason Schwartzman. The style and the list of collaborations segue from one movie to the next, and they are as predictable as the changing of the seasons or the underachievement of the England football team. Will there be a point where even his most hardcore of fans begin to feel the onset of boredom? Can he ever actually surprise us anymore?
This is the question I find myself constantly asking when it comes to Anderson. Is it fair? I don’t know. I nearly always feel a sense of guilt when questioning this filmmaker in particular, because I’m never sure whether I really should be criticizing him or praising him for the singularity and consistency of his vision. On the one hand I admire his ability to create these dollhouse-style mini worlds of quirk, but on the other with each passing film I wonder what he might have achieved if he tried to create something completely different to his previous work. I can just as easily succumb to the tweeness of Wes Anderson’s films as I can find myself bristling at the cloying, indie-schmindie relentlessness of them. As such, depending on how I feel on any given day, I can happily argue that Anderson is one of the most recognizable and fascinating of modern day auteurs (although before we get carried away it’s worth remembering that Michael Bay is, to all intents and purposes, another) or a man who simply makes the same film over and over again, with only slight differences between the characters, locations, scenarios and objects therein.
Having now watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, my love / hate relationship with Anderson continues, although in truth I neither love his films nor hate them; that said, this seems to me to be one of his best films to date. Spanning a period of 70 years, roughly, it takes the form of a story within a story (within a story within a story). (Anderson’s use of different aspect ratios to distinguish between these periods is novel, but ultimately unnecessary.) At the top, present-day level, a young girl approaches the statue of a writer in a cemetery, who is known only as ‘The Author’, although we can probably assume the statue represents the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who is namechecked in the credits as having provided inspiration for the tale (though the influence of authors and playwrights as diverse as Franz Kafka and Noël Coward is also evident). We also, briefly, see The Author as an old man (played by Tom Wilkinson) in the 1980s, before following him as a younger man in 1968 (where he is played by Jude Law). Staying at the Eastern Bloc-styled Grand Budapest in the fictional former Alpine Republic of Zubrowka, The Author meets the hotel’s elderly owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who, over dinner, spins a yarn from his youth, when Europe was on the brink of war and the Grand Budapest was in its glorious heyday.
This 1930s-set part of the story forms the bulk of the movie, following the adventures of Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated swearer and expert concierge Gustave H and his protégé, young Arab refugee and lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). Gustave is a charmingly camp tour-de-force, regularly bedding older widows in addition to fulfilling his other more functional hotel-based duties. One of these, a wealthy dowager named Madame D (the ever-adaptable Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and leaves a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, much to the chagrin of her hateful, fascist-sympathiser son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Gustave and Zero steal the painting, but Dmitri frames him for Madame D’s murder, leading to a spell in prison, an escape and a subsequent attempt at restoring Gustave’s good name with the help of Zero’s wife-to-be Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and an international brotherhood of hotel concierges. Who are a bit like The Masons, but with even better access to good restaurant tables.
It’s an enjoyable, farcical romp, propelled largely by the excellent double act of Fiennes and Revolori and a large list of enjoyably wacky cameos, but The Grand Budapest Hotel also has a darker side, one which Anderson uses to shift the mood on occasion, but ultimately something he decides not to explore in a meaningful way. The war looms heavily over Zubrowka, with a fascist army based on the Wehrmacht and the SS using increasing levels of force as their presence in the country increases. Additionally, the darker tone is informed by the actions of the menacing Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri’s muscle, who leaves an impressive trail of fingers and corpses in his wake considering the general lack of violence in the movie. And then there’s a general sense that the rise of fascism and the onset of war is bringing an end to the salad days; our ability to compare the hotel of the 1930s to that of the 1960s – one ornate, pink and yellow, the other functional, tired and brown – illustrates that something in this world has been lost forever and will not return anytime soon.
The frothy, surreal humour is often at odds with the background themes of the film, which are skirted around lightly. As mentioned above, a near-constant criticism of Anderson is that whenever things start to get a little bit heavy he swiftly defaults back to safer, easier whimsical matters. Admittedly this is a caper, so it’s arguable that there’s little-to-no place for the horrors of wartime occupation, although the presence and actions of the SS-style officers (same uniforms but with ‘ZZ’ lettering) and soldiers repeatedly hints at the strongarm tactics and ethnic cleansing happening elsewhere. Anderson comes as close as possible to making a film about the Second World War without actually making a film about the Second World War, and I wonder whether he changed certain details and names in order to avoid similar accusations of tastelessness that were bizarrely thrown at Roberto Benigni’s black comedy La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful), which addressed the Holocaust more directly through its humour. The difference between the two is that Benigni’s movie laughs in the face of its terrible subject matter but courageously doesn’t look away, and continues to laugh in the face of the horrors of World War II for its duration. Anderson’s film, on the other hand, occasionally comes across as a sideways snigger at the idea of stereotypical angry generals and their jackbooted charges. When you strip away all that beautiful production design and the eye-catching cameos – and admittedly that would take a considerable amount of time – The Grand Budapest Hotel has little new or illuminating to say about the changes in 1930s Europe, but there is a certain degree of skill in the way that the heavy stuff is kept at arm’s length.
Though Fiennes, Revolori and many others leave a lasting impression, the movie’s posters suggest that the real star of The Grand Budapest Hotel is the establishment itself. It’s certainly the most elaborate and intricate of Anderson’s settings to date, far grander in scale than the train in The Darjeeling Limited or the New York townhouse of The Royal Tenenbaums, for example. The action switches regularly to equally-impressive locations, such as Madame D’s castle, a Gulag-style prison camp and a strange mountain-top monastery, but returning to the great hotel is often a comforting, welcome experience … similar to the equivalent feeling in real life, in fact. With its huge staircases, tiny lifts, funicular and distinct colour scheme, gazing around the screen at the hotel’s grandeur (and indeed the faded, Communist-style functionalism of later years) is a real treat, and yet again one can only be impressed by Anderson’s attention to detail.
That fastidiousness goes much further than the hotel lobby and bedrooms, of course. The director manages to fetishise a wide range of objects and paraphernalia as usual, seemingly lavishing boots, trouser lengths, knuckledusters, wine glasses, cakes (and their boxes), letters and pictures with the kind of attention they would probably not receive from any other director. Differentiating what is important from that which isn’t is often an exhausting process, but there’s certainly plenty to gawp at in just about every frame. Perhaps that’s why the centrally-composed shots work so well; whenever the eyes are darting around trying to take in all the ephemera, searching for a place to rest, there’s usually a head slap-bang in the middle of the screen to focus on, however briefly that turns out to be.
The huge array of objects actually provide a good deal of the deadpan laughs here. When Gustave and Zero steal Madame D’s painting, for example, they replace it with a gaudy erotic lesbian scene that just happened to be sitting nearby (all the more amusing when it is revealed, later on, that Dmitri hadn’t even noticed that the vastly-different pictures had been switched). Anderson’s waspish sense of the absurd is also evident when Gustave attempts to escape the prison camp with the help of four fellow inmates, and all are pictured in close proximity desperately trying to chisel through stone or iron with tiny tools that have been smuggled into the jail. It’s ridiculously cartoonish, but it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the five dead bodies seen after an off-camera fight shortly thereafter.
In recent years the appearance of a new Anderson movie has become something of an event in itself, with a growing legion of fans queuing up to celebrate his talent for crafting oddball, retro-fuelled whimsy. Each release seems to be arriving with a growing sense of fuss, but one wonders just how long that will (or can) continue. Surely I can’t be the only person out there getting bored with the same traits, the same look, the same actors? As I say above, generally-speaking I enjoyed the cameos here, but when Bill Murray popped up I must admit I let out an exasperated sigh, and I say that as an avowed fan of Bill Murray. Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum and Harvey Keitel were all quite amusing, too, but I would rather be watching any one of those talented actors in a new, decent role in a new, decent film by a new, decent filmmaker this year instead of their knowing, wink-wink, slightly smug Anderson cameo turns. Though, admittedly, their roles are all sufficiently small enough that I’m sure it didn’t take much out of their yearly schedules.
All said, there are plenty of moments during The Grand Budapest Hotel when it is plain to see why this film was received so well a few months ago; it is, at times, an intricate delight, which will stand up to repeated viewings due to the sheer amount of visual and aural information there is to take in, if nothing else. The performances by Revolori, Ronan and Fiennes in particular – all actors working with Anderson for the first time, incidentally – are warm and highly enjoyable to watch. Anderson creates such impressive wholes, usually ensuring that such performances are not only complemented by the music, the production design, the tone, the script and the cinematography (long-time collaborator Robert Yeoman is called upon once more), they also fit well with the more idiosyncratic touches, such as the use of model miniatures and stop-motion animation. There are few directors working today who are as predictable, but only to a certain degree; there is still much here that surprises, even if it is way too frothy to ever get to grips with the problems of wartime. When Anderson and his crew are this good, though, all the questions and doubts temporarily fade away. Until next time, anyway.
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Schwartzman
Running Time: 99 minutes