Wes Anderson is back at it again, this time with the shockingly successful money-maker that is “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Three years after the endearing and quietly affecting “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film which highlighted the best aspects of Anderson’s work (visual composition, off-beat dialogue, whimsiness) while moving away from his sometimes stuffy pretentiousness in favor of a story which favored thoughtful emotion over dry intellect. Nonetheless, these were tweeks, not overhauls; it was still quintessentially a Wes Anderson film. “Grand Budapest Hotel” continues in the same vein, although it sacrifices some of the childlike sense of whimsy which highlighted his last two films, “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” for a more openly comedic farce that still maintains a deceptively sweet center. It’s fun and enjoyable on the surface but bears multiple viewings which reveal more about Anderson’s intent and the complexities lying within the dense yet cavernous hotel of the film’s title. This may not be Anderson at his finest, but it’s both a strong example of his filmmaking prowess which lies comfortably within his canon and suitably different enough to deserve its existence this late into Anderson’s career. Around the mid-2000s, it seemed as if Anderson was simply content repeating himself, but this late career renaissance has proven not only that he won’t rest on his laurels but that he still has much left to say.
On the surface, the plot is simple, even trite. Essentially it goes something like this: the Grand Budapest Hotel is a widely esteemed and respected hotel for Europe’s wealthiest during the early 30s, a period caught between the lasting decay of one world war and the foreboding doom of another. It’s chiefest attraction? It’s supremely dedicated concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who tends to his guests every whim, seemingly no matter what they entail, albeit with the help of a young, new apprentice, Zero (Tony Revolori). When an elderly guest passes on and leaves Gustave a priceless painting, he finds himself a victim of foul play when the deceased’s heir Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his unhinged and only questionably human sidekick Jopling (Willem Dafoe) accuse Gustave of murder and have him thrown in jail, willing to stop at nothing to get the painting. From there things get Anderson-esque as Gustave and Zero plot an escape, bond a little, and, of course, engage in numerous lengthy conversations, the subjects of which most would normally pass off as small talk, but which Anderson imbues with a sense of dry wit and subtle majesty. Naturally, general silliness ensues.
But most of Anderson’s greatest stalwarts don’t go to his movies for the narrative. Above all, they’re there to see one of cinema’s foremost visual artists at work. And on that note, Anderson’s film is a rousing success. Simply put, this is a stunning film, perhaps the most opulent from a director known for his usually more subtle visual prowess. The hotel is immaculate. Its bright pink aesthetic is most apparent, but more compelling is the structural composition within the hotel. As Gustave and others run around, going from room to room in continuous shots, we really get a sense of just how much work they put into the hyperbolically large and, well, grand hotel. The highlight of the film, however, is a mid-movie chase scene through a museum where the shadow work is simply awe-inspiring. One scene where a character’s glasses reflect light toward the camera in a pitch dark frame is as masterful an image as I’ve seen in years.
While he works up a visual feast for the imagination here, Anderson never seems to lose sight of how his visuals define his characters, and above all the setting and tone of the film. Gustave, ever concerned with his appearance, is a literal manifestation of Anderson’s sensibility as a filmmaker. The film, like its main character, deceptively favors style over substance, only to reveal hidden depth beneath Gustave’s desire to control himself through his appearance. The relationship between the quiet, reserved Gustave and Zero is touching. Throughout the film, Gustave loses control over a life he likes to keep thoroughly ordered, and his attempts to control and order Zero around reveal themselves to be more than simply a blind commitment to his position and the hotel. For Gustave, the titular hotel is his life, and without it he’s lost.
Anderson’s visuals, however, also reflect the mentality of the film’s he is clearly emulating. Watching, it’s hard not to think of the films being made in the early 30s of the film’s setting; Anderson himself has discussed his inspiration in Ernst Lubitsch’s timeless, yet entirely of its time, between-the-wars humor. I see a lot of Renoir’s supremely studied yet always-in-danger-of-going-off-the-rails comedy of manners efforts as well, most notably “Rules of the Game.” Numerous obvious references to the films of the late 20s and early 30s are present. For instance, Jopling is an overt nod to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu” (Dafoe comes full circle here after playing an actual vampire hired to play Nosferatu in “Shadow of a Vampire”). But the magic is that it isn’t all specific references, it’s more of a vibe permeating the film. Toward the end, when the film seems right at the sublime point between the danger of constantly careening out of control and immaculate, carefully constructed restraint, it’s hard not to think of Graucho Marx simultaneously serving as distanced social critic, unassuming voice of the masses and devious puppet-master of Freedonia. Anderson’s film is made for the time it depicts. This, above all, is Anderson’s greatest trick.
“Grand Budapest Hotel” isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion of Anderson. If anything, it’s the quintessential Anderson film. Immaculate and professionally constructed, this is the work of a man who both has a vision and knows enough of a studied, film-school approach to master that vision. For all its wackiness, one could be forgiven for feeling a distance and even a sterility to Anderson’s carefully sequenced framing and mise-en-scéne, as though he is always in control and is perhaps too afraid to let go and have the film speak for itself. We’re always aware that he’s the one making the film, not the other way around. As such, it may seem a bit more satisfying to the eyes and the brain than to the heart. For all its beauty, this is after all a relatively light-hearted affair that deals in smirks and chuckles rather than gut-busting, barbed satire. And its emotional impact is more quiet and respectable than a punch to the gut or an effervescent joy. One would be excused for referring to the film as a pleasant diversion and nothing else.
But there’s a deceptive longing here for a different time and place that belays the film’s bittersweet nature. There’s real pain here, surrounding the film as if it’s dreading to overtake it and Anderson just has to control his comedy that much more to keep it at bay. It’s fitting then that this is a tribute to the intermission between the world wars, with the lasting trauma of one and the impending rise of another ensuring an always overhanging anxiety and dread in Europe, and indeed the world. Many of the great comedies of that time were products, implicitly if not explicitly, of this dread. Even when they couldn’t address it head-on, as much due to the mental and emotional devastation caused to individual and communal psyches as any governmental censoring body, it was all around, threatening to overtake society. In the rising medium of film, individuals sought an escape, but an escape which mirrored, in transmuted and contorted ways, the real world, contortions which allowed them to interpret and address their own world without having to confront it head-on. The comedies of that period were often a means not only to hide trauma, but to relate to it. It would be decades, until the rise of growing inequality throughout the world in the 80s, when comedy would be as fruitful a market for filmmaking again. In his tribute to this deeply humanist form of film-making, Anderson has learned well. Periods of inequality and depression have always led to a flourishing of such films. And in the bruised, cynical world we live in, not entirely dissimilar in some respects from the aforementioned periods of strife, “Grand Budapest Hotel” is perhaps more fitting than many will acknowledge.