Two years after the quietly affecting Moonrise Kingdom, a film which highlighted the best aspects of Wes Anderson’s work (visual composition, whimsy, formal symmetry redefining the objects of childhood) while moving away from his sometimes stuffy pretentiousness, The Grand Budapest Hotel doubles down on rigid, intricate, potentially suffocating framing only to open up the seems a little and air out some of Anderson’s internal demons. Admittedly, it sacrifices some of the childlike whimsy which highlighted his last two films, Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, for a more openly stylized, boxy, comedic farce that still maintains a deceptively sweet center. Yet, repeat viewings bear a different beast than the clinical monstrosity it initially feigns, revealing 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 a stirring example of his filmmaking prowess which lies comfortably within his canon and carves out its own temperamental niche. 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 is actively invested in a bifurcated, simultaneous self-critique and a lovely pushing of his aesthetic as far as it can possibly take him.
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. Its 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 Jopling 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 and begging-to-be-acknowledged splendor from a director known for his usually more subtle visual prowess. The hotel is immaculately presented, on the inside and out. 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 without cuts, we really get a sense of just how much work they put into the hyperbolically large and, well, grand hotel. The absolute 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.
Another chief pleasure, one which the film all but begs to be acknowledged, is that the look of the film isn’t all for show. 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 (touchingly played by Ralph Fiennes, abandoning his usual thunderous bad-guy template) and Zero (Tony Revolori) 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, something which comes through later in the film, after he’s trapped outside the hotel, as he continually requires aid from nearly everyone around him.
Anderson’s visuals, however, also reflect the mentality of the films he is clearly emulating. Watching, it’s hard not to think of the frothy bitters 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 obvious 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.
On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t necessarily 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; we are painfully aware that this is a work of craftsmanship, first and foremost, and its lunacy must innately be somewhat subdued as Anderson shows no tolerance for letting things off the rails or otherwise just having a time with himself. 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-scene, 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 (although certain aspects of class commentary are inherent to the images comparing the hotel to the surrounding poverty stricken areas). 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.
Yet, in this capacity, Anderson’s film is not only made for the time it depicts, but it gives it, and himself, a little kick in the behind in the process. Anderson, like many filmmakers from the ’30s, favor cinematography above all else, especially of the carefully composed kind. Anderson gives us this at its most immaculate, but he unravels it in the process. Gustave, for instance, is all composition and no emotion. We wonder if there’s no heart behind the purple dreads. When he does cry, sometimes, it seems obviously forced, obviously the product of a screen-writer. At one point, when his confidence is shaken, he breaks down and runs away like a pale Road Runner pastiche – an imitation of a cartoon. It all seems too constructed for its own good, and we’re aware that Anderson is doing it all on purpose.
Here, the director teases out this artificial inhumanity to its logical extent – some of the characters speak with such an affected manner it’s almost impossible to take as anything out of reality. There’s a wonderfully wry mid-film scene where M. Gustave has an emotional breakdown, only to quickly compose himself and apologize in the most oppressively artificial tone possible – quite brilliantly though, we understand that this is just how he expresses himself, and it may be his surest sign of care and respect to do so. In M. Gustave, Anderson has a character to rival himself: brainy, deeply caring, professional, poised, and a tad bit superficial, and Anderson’s treatment of him reveals at once a confession of his very artifice and a loving celebration of it. Indeed Anderson’s films have always been openly constructed – he loves narration, segmented chapters, overtly-framed visuals boxed-off for our pleasure, non-diegetic text, and all other manner of visual tricks that let us know he’s creating a diorama of sort , not a truly living, breathing world. Here, he’s just a little more self-consciously mocking about it, making this the first film in his canon to posit, even if it doesn’t commit to the idea, that all his artificially twee framing and rigid formalism might actually entrap his characters, stuff them up in his box, and give them no room to breathe.
Even so, the fact that Anderson can use this style to self-reflexively constrict himself doubles back and retroactively opens up his filmmaking to further analysis. It is a daring blind, and it pays off in spades. Where it pays off most is in allowing Anderson’s audience to massage the inner haunt and brittle humanism of his frigid limbo of coiffed hair and symmetrical architecture. There’s a deceptive longing for a different time and place that belies the film’s bittersweet nature. There’s real pain here, surrounding the film as if dreading to overtake it and Anderson just has to control his comedy that much more to keep it at bay; it’s a statement to how Anderson’s rigid formalism both restricts and finds truth, both hides emotion and pushes it to the surface for the same reason.
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. Anderson’s film is a reflection, after all, that the Anderson aesthetic, like the pre-war comedy aesthetic altogether, is an attempt to hide, to cope with trauma and fear but not addressing it, and by masking it under artsy fluff. If Grand Budapest doubles, Dr. Caligari style imposed close-ups and all, as a friendly slap to the obvious constructions and conventions of early cinema, it reveals a far more textured worry underneath the satire, a reminder that the high spirits and seeming immaturity of a genre and time is actually a way of handling far deeper and darker secrets. 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 filmmaking, Anderson has learned well. Periods of inequality and depression have always led to a flourishing of such films. The fact remains; the bruised, cynical world we live in is not entirely dissimilar to the aforementioned periods of strife. And today, the self-critical, forward-thinking The Grand Budapest Hotel, finding haunts and hopes in formalist, static routine both hiding and revealing its inability to cope with emotional anxiety, is perhaps more fitting for the modern age, or any age, than we may ever know. Anderson has long been considered an alien, inhuman director. He has long hidden from humanity, true, and he has long used his films to put up walls around breathing, messy human emotion. But then, humans do the same. Budapest shows that he is aware of this, that his hiding his humanity is the most deeply human thing he or anyone has ever done, and it shows him pushing his aesthetic to its breaking point in the most confident directorial self-exploration released in years. Challenge, trauma, and experimentation have seldom been this fun, and fun almost never this challenging, traumatic, and exploratory. Long after he became and old dog, Anderson keeps learning new tricks.
Addendum: The achievements of Anderson’s vision as a social critique are only all the more apparent after considering his stylistic embodiment of America’s hopelessly arcane and myopic view of middle-century Europe as a vacuous limbo. Compared to, say, Tarantino’s more overt treatment of American egotism in WWII – Inglorious Basterds is essentially the story of violence-thirsty American pigs using the oppression of Jews as an excuse for their personal impulses – The Grand Budapest is actually a more striking and complete critique of America’s view of Europe as a plaything; Anderson uses his toybox aesthetic and its constricting aura to meditate on his own alienation from his subject matter and his distance from the material he wishes to tackle, his own utilization of Europe’s inter-war crisis as a tool for his personal fixations rather than as a way to seriously engage with the social calamity of Europe at the time. Tarantino is always on the look out for escape routes, but Anderson’s hermetically-sealed, quietly tragic style offers no such point of egress, no way of cathartically breaking out of a stymying worldview and simply reveling in violence and bloodshed. Anderson’s stylistic proclivities embody the worldview of a person – or a nation – trapped within its own mental limits, positing US cinema on WWII as a state of arrested development that, by virtue of its own self-reflexive gaze, is nonetheless inherently capable of testing its own limits and pushing beyond itself, investigating its very being. Anderson’s adolescent fragility has always been his foundational strength and his immanent weakness, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he marshals his style as a self-inflicted wound that reveals its own aesthetic brittleness, as well as the brittleness of the worldview that underpins it.