The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
by Chad Jewett
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the titular institution of Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film, resembles nothing if not some ornate pastry. A horizontal block of varying shades of sugar-frosting pink, it fills the screen gorgeously. And indeed, like the hyper-pastel baked goods that figure prominently into the film’s plot, The Grand Budapest Hotel is at turns Anderson’s most richly flavorful film, and occasionally also his most cloying and over-saturated. Essentially a dramatized memory of the hotel’s current owner and one-time “Lobby Boy” (played in old age by F. Murray Abraham and in youth by Tony Revolori), depicting a particularly dramatic episode in the life of the hotel’s once-famous concierge, M. Gustave (an excellent Ralph Fiennes), The Grand Budapest Hotel offers Anderson at his most continental, indulging in multiple eras of Eastern and Central Europe, with all the hyper-detailed trappings that implies. Indeed, it gives the director the opportunity to work in the drab utilitarian interiors of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited (especially in the mid-60s, Soviet-era version of the Hotel), the rich, mahogany-paneled spaces of The Royal Tenenbaums (in the early 30s Alpine/Bavarian estate of Madame D., a favored guest of Gustave), and the playset exteriors of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. We tend to filter the work of auteurs through their own filmographies (how many reviews have catalogued the bedazzled reactions of Spielberg’s witnesses?), but few directors seem to ask us to do so as clearly as Anderson. The fact that his signature Futura font is largely absent seems to be the only thing that really nudges us off the trail.
I begin with talk of the film’s richly-detailed, worried-over spaces because it’s fairly apparent Anderson begins exactly the same way. As an exploration of Weimar, then Fascist, then Soviet-era Europe, the timeline offers Anderson plenty of opportunity to go all in on his knack for populating spaces with objects of overloaded meaning. It makes the film a marvel to look at, but unfortunately, Anderson also frequently overloads his actors with words that must compete with his beautiful sets. The film details the murder of Madame D., a final will that leaves a priceless painting to her beloved Gustave, and an accusation of murder from D’s scheming son that lands Gustave in jail, where he plans and executes an escape in typically fanciful Anderson style (like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, these scenes betray a love for Looney Tunes and pre-television slapstick in the otherwise high-art Anderson). During and in between there is a love plot between the narrator/Gustave’s protégé, Zero Moustafa (Abraham/Revolori) and Agatha (a baker’s apprentice played by Saoirse Ronan), the ominous depiction of the fall of the Weimar Republican democracy (characterized by a human yet dutiful Edward Norton) into thinly-veiled Nazism (at one point, a particularly deranged looking Adrien Brody, playing D’s vicious son, parades around in all black, a red zig-zag logo on his arm), and an acerbically violent subplot involving Brody’s bruiser of an aide, played with leering threat by Willem Dafoe.
Indeed, the weird pock-marks of blood that dot The Grand Budapest Hotel arrive as dissonant moments of bad flavor in Anderson’s confection. The director has fun with new generic territories of noir and suspense, involving D’s attorney, played with recognizably human flair (odd to say about an actor who is rivaled on by Christopher Walken in his normally odd line-readings) by Jeff Goldblum, fleeing Dafoe’s heavy. It’s a thrilling new vision of the athleticism and heat that Anderson can breath into his normally stately museum pieces, until the whole thing ends in disquieting violence that, at least in the theater in which I viewed the film, sucked the air out of the room. While the film does seem to have something to say about how Fascism destroyed an era that Anderson clearly finds inspiration in, it also seems like the director doesn’t know what to do in order to balance his signature key, whimsy, with his new taste for consequence and human beings that are actual physical realities. It recalls the odd moments of violence in Moonrise Kingdom, scenes that were also upsetting partly because we don’t expect such things from Anderson, and partly because he largely deploys them as uncanny interludes in otherwise dreamy pageants.
Anderson also departs from his own aesthetic with the sheer amount of words he leaves for his cast to digest. Contrast this with the brief but meaningful poetics of Moonrise or Tenenbaums (“I’ve had a rough year dad,” “What kind of bird are you”). Some of his actors excel under that pressure; Feines, for instance, milks the verbose poetic avalanches of Gustave for all their worth, playing his long drones for all their pretentious, faux-romantic charm. Every once in a while, Anderson adds a new ideal vessel to his retinue (Edward Norton, for instance, made me wonder why he wasn’t in Life Aquatic or The Royal Tenenbaums); Feines, who clearly gets Anderson’s humor, is perfect. However, other actors have a tough time of it. Tom Wilkinson, who plays the elder iteration of the novelist who records Zero’s story (the film uses an oddly complex framing device which, frankly, distracts from both the story and its tellers), seems to be gasping for air, as does Goldblum, who does great work here, but possibly strikes one as so naturalistic because he doesn’t have time or breath for his normal ticks and pauses. Harvey Keitel, who plays a prison tough that helps Gustave escape, simply delivers his lines in his own temporality, and his brief monologue, detailing the escape plan, feels like a breather, if only because one can assume Keitel (like the similarly “too old for this shit” Gene Hackman) was only going to play it like Keitel.
The film is an hour and forty minutes, but feels like it rushes through that time. Anderson, who is normally so great at convincing us as to why characters care about one another (the scene in Tenenbaums, in which Richie watches Margot get off a city bus, set to Nico’s “These Days” is still a heartbreaking masterstroke), settles for simply telling us that Zero cares about Agatha, and that she’s wonderful, but otherwise zips past anything that might convince us or make us care about her character, whose life, after the film’s conflict is settled, is supposed to make the whole upturned dollhouse come together. Instead, we’re almost left to fill in the blanks, as if Anderson knows quite well that we’ve seen enough of his movies to understand how his Salinger-esque women operate. Indeed, this is Anderson’s most masculine film, a shame really, considering how wonderful Anjelica Huston and Kara Hayward were in past films. His movies tend to be unfair to women, so boyish are their perspectives, but they also devote a great deal of time and energy to wonderful female performances. Not so for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which simply asks us to trust how delightful Agatha is, even though I’m sure Ronan could convince us on her own.
That said, it’s a great pleasure to watch Anderson work in this new mode. His love for world-building has reached George Lucas-like heights, and without Lucas’s cynicism. Watching the film construct its gleefully ageographical blend of Switzerland, Austria, and the Balkans is infectiously fun (characters speak French, everything carries German names and fonts, the hotel references Hungary) is wonderful. The new genre touchstones that Anderson is beginning to incorporate, including pre- and post-war drama, noir, murder mystery, and drawing room farce, are all ripe for a stylist of his imagination and energy. There are still scenes of glorious kinetics and humor (a ski chase and cartoonish shootout finale are amongst them), others of great sadness (the fates of most of the cast are heartbreaking), and the film’s framing device — a young girl clutching her copy of a novel, named for the hotel — is deeply poignant, and more real than a lot of what Anderson trades in. However, right now, it doesn’t feel, despite its place way up in the Alps, as though The Grand Budapest Hotel, reaches the heights of The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore. Nor does it feel as ephemeral as the experimental genre pastiche that was The Darjeeling Limited, or the dour writer’s block of The Life Aquatic.
If anything, the film carries the European flair and useful boundary-pushing of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, another eccentrically verbose, oddly violent art project, a left-turn that, a few years later, feels increasingly essential. Maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel will too. Indeed, you could imagine George Clooney’s Fox and M. Gustave passing time together, quoting great bards and relishing fine delicacies, reveling in their own good taste. That, above all else, is the great gift that Anderson keeps giving. His dioramas feel like they exist in the same world, different times, spaces, nations, but all beating with very similar weary, charming, autumnal hearts. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most baroque, ornate maze (and, consequently, you get stuck and turned around more than in most of his films), but one nevertheless still hears that thump. There’s still so much up there on the screen with which to fall in love.