Directed by: Wes Anderson.
Written by: Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustave), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr. Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X.), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D.), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck).
It’s easy to get lost in the pleasures of the surface of Wes Anderson’s films. They are so meticulously crafted and filled with wonderful, visual detail that you can watch most of his films again and again, and still notice wholly new things each and every time. His latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is no exception. It takes place in 4 different time periods – in the (present day?) where a young girl looks up at the statute of a famous writer, and then cracks up his book The Grand Budapest Hotel (a typical device of Anderson’s – many of his movies begin with their titles on books) – and then flashes back to 1985 where the writer (Tom Wilkinson) discusses how he came to write the book to a TV crew – which flashes us back to 1968, where the younger version of the writer (Jude Law) is staying at the title hotel, and meets its owner Mr. Moustfa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him how he can to own the hotel – which flashes us back to 1932, when he was a mere lobby boy working for the great concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Anderson uses a different aspect ratio for the scenes in 1932, 1968 and the scenes form 1985 and the present day – with a boxer frame dominating in the 1932 scenes, given way to widescreen later on. The hotel in 1932 is glorious colorful and vibrant – while the same hotel in 1968 is dull and drab – amazingly, the set for the 1968 hotel is built over top of the set of the 1932 hotel, and was removed to shoot the earlier scenes. If this film doesn’t win an Art Direction Oscar, I give up. The costumes, Robert Yeoman’s cinematographer and Alexandre Desplat’s score are all worthy of effusive praise as well. The movie is hilarious – getting great, Wes Anderson-style performances from his largely game cast of his stock company – Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson – and newcomers like Abraham, Wilkinson, Law, Saorise Ronan, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux – and the two main characters, newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, and especially Ralph Fiennes as Gustave. There are great set pieces – a stalking through a museum that ends in a grisly demise, and hilarious race down a mountain. You could fill a whole review talking about the surface of The Grand Budapest Hotel, call it another triumph for Anderson, and move on.
But that would, I think, do a disservice to the movie – which I think is the deepest work Anderson has done to this point in his career. Before now, Anderson has mainly focused on the personal – strained family relationships and longtime marriages on the brink of collapse, surrogate and real father figures who often let the main characters down, idealized young love, and withering older love. Many of these themes run through The Grand Budapest Hotel as well. This is every inch a typical Wes Anderson movie – and then it’s more than that. For the first time, Anderson is looking at something bigger, more wide ranging than the personal. It’s no coincidence that he sets his movie is various time periods important in 20th Century History – the main action during Hitler’s rise, the second during the Prague Spring of 1968, and the final scenes on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Anderson doesn’t explicitly reference any of these things – he sets his movie in the fictional country of Zubrowska, we don’t see a Swastika as any point, although the soldiers Gustave calls “fascists” do sport a stylized double S on their uniforms.
The Grand Budapest is the harshest film of Anderson’s career – and certainly the most violent. Willem Dafoe’s Jopling, an employee of Adrien Brody’s Dmitri, furious that his elderly mother left Gustave a valuable painting, and will do everything possible to prevent it from happening – is responsible for many of those moments – a surprisingly comedic moment with a cat, that turns grim in a hurry, more than one brutal murder. The film is harsher, coarser in other ways as well – there is more swearing in this film than any other Anderson film. In some ways, the relationship between Zero and Gustave echoes that in other Anderson films – a young man and surrogate father has been addressed in films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. But the reasons why Zero is looking for a surrogate father are a little harsher than normal – and ties in Anderson’s broader themes that he’s working with – tying his old aesthetic and themes, with a more wide ranging worldview.
The same is true of the character of Gustave as well. Like many Anderson characters – Dignan in Bottle Rocket, Max Fisher in Rushmore and Francis in The Darjeeling Limited for example – he is an obsessive planner - extremely detailed oriented and wanting everything to be perfect. His obsession with civility and politeness in a world that is becoming coarser and more violent will strike some as hopelessly naïve – or delusional – that Gustave is a man who doesn’t realize that the world has changed. But as Zero says, that time had passed long before Gustave was even alive – but he continues to behave in a civilized manner – and despises vulgarity and violence. It’s not delusion or naiveté then drives Gustave – but a little bit of defiance. He may not fight against the encroaching fascism in the traditional sense – but he does refuse to give into it. There are twin scenes with Gustave and Zero on a train – one of which Gustave prevails, in part because he refuses to sink to their level, and one that with a result so painful, Anderson’s camera doesn’t even record it. Fiennes delivers what just may be the best performance of his career as Gustave – outwardly fitting perfectly into the world that Anderson has created, but also helping Anderson to create his deeper portrait of a world sinking into violence and despair.
I have always thought that Anderson’s films are deeper than just their meticulously crafted surfaces. It is the surfaces that everyone knows – even my wife, who is not a fan of Anderson, knows one of his films pretty much by a single frame. But if Anderson was nothing more than a stylist, than he wouldn’t be any better than say Tim Burton – a director whose visual style is undeniably his own – but more often than not at the service of an empty worldview. Anderson makes films that get deeper with each new viewing – Burton makes films that are fun to go through once, but not very interesting a second time. Anderson’s films get deeper every time – and I feel that after one time through The Grand Budapest Hotel that I am barely scratching the surface of Anderson’s deepest film yet. Is it Anderson’s best film? I’m not sure – ask me again after I’ve seen 2 or 3 more times.