Director Wes Anderson is, without a doubt, one of the most particular and distinctive auteurs working today. He is also one of the more divisive. This is something that will come up every time a director lends such a specific style to movies. Anderson -who loves to frame his characters in the middle of the frame, looking melancholy to the camera; who puts them in places that look more like giant dollhouses than any real location, where even the most insignificant of occupations has a list of intricate rules- is so precise in the way he makes a movie, that anyone familiar with his work could look at a single frame and tell you if they’re watching a Wes Anderson film. However, Anderson’s attachment to his peculiarities has also given birth to a substantial list of critiques towards him and his craft.
Most complains come from people who think he is much more interested in style than in substance. People who find his movies cold, and distant, and without anything particularly important to say. People that he is interested in telling stories about a sad sack group of white people just to be able to fabricate detailed worlds around them. For a while there, I would have had to agree with some of those people’s quibbles. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a movie I like) and The Darjeeling Limited (a movie I don’t) strike me as particularly affected by these accusations. But sometime in the last five years Anderson seems to have taken a leap, and become fully aware of what he is doing in a way he wasn’t before. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his last two movies, were also his best, not only because they have more dynamic protagonists, but because they perfectly marry his style to the emotional premise of the movie. This period of newly regained strength and creativity has led to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which might just become the quintessential Wes Anderson movie, for it is a film that pretty much argues in favor of the existence of all of the director’s oeuvre.
The movie, fittingly to the director, features a nesting doll structure. We begin with a young woman visiting a statue of the author of a book called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We then jump to the eighties, where the Author (Tom Wilkinson) tells us about the circumstances that brought him to write the novel. So we jump to the sixties, where a Young Author (Jude Law) visits a run-down Grand Budapest Hotel in the Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, where he meets Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Hotel, who proceeds to tell us the story of how the Grand Budapest came to his possession. This final timeline, taking place in the 1930s and shot in a vertical 3:4 Academy aspect ratio, is the one that takes up most of the movie’s running time. In it, we are introduced to a young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy working at the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious destination run by Mr. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustave is not only the concierge of the Hotel and Zero’s mentor, but also the real protagonist of the movie. He is a man completely dedicated to keeping the grandiose establishment at the top of its game, and to cater to its distinguished visitors. He, in fact, has a particular passion for entertaining (and sleeping with) the wealthy old ladies that stay at the Hotel and come back just for him. However, problems come to Gustave’s life when one of these wealthy ladies, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is victim of a sudden death. Her will leaves Gustave the invaluable painting known as “Boy with Apple”. Madame D’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is furious about this, and so, Gustave ends up becoming a fugitive, desperately trying to keep his life, his hotel, and expose the apparent conspiracy around Madame D’s death.
Gustave is one of the most brilliant of Wes Anderson’s protagonists. Ralph Fiennes gives what I can only describe as a delicious performance. He is completely hilarious as a man who hopelessly tries to keep the composure typical to the elegant world he has grown accustomed to just as his whole life crumbles around him. Not only is there the thread of Dmitri and his henchmen, but of the Zig Zag Division, a police group that is basically the Wes Anderson equivalent of the Nazi SS. Yes, underneath its glossy pink cover, this is actually a movie about World War II and the human inability to stop our most destructive instincts.
Anderson’s argument, presented through Gustave’s odyssey, is in favor of people who try to cling to the past, no matter how remote or inexistent it may be, in order to cope with the horrors of what the future awaits for them. As such, this is the director’s darkest and most tragic movie. Even within his highly fantasized landscapes, a real threat of violence looms in this movie. It’s as if the real world, with all its problems and brutality, interrupted Gustave’s (and Anderson’s) vision of a perfect world. Gustave seems to be, of all of Anderson’s protagonists, the clearest stand-in for the director. One that stands for the value of fantasy, fancy, taste and beauty by trying to keep a magnificent hotel running at full speed no matter what goes on around him.
I said this is Anderson’s darkest movie, but it’s also one of the funniest. Fiennes is, of course, a laugh riot, but you also have a ridiculous number of the director’s usual players in the supporting roles. I already mentioned Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton, but you also have Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. That Anderson so vehemently decided to populate this world with familiar faces works wonderfully in landing the movie’s double message. On the one hand, you have all these people standing for the argument that the director’s movies have value. On the other, you have a level of artifice that makes way to a bigger, more beneficial argument.
There is a scene that consists of a chain of phone calls, which slowly reveals a number of familiar faces for those who like Anderson movies. This scene presents a group of fanciful actors we’ve enjoyed in the past sticking up to to try and stop the horrors of the war to come, but it is also fantasy sticking up to reality and contending for its importance. It is a plea for all of us to keep building our beautiful dollhouses.
Grade: 9 out of 10 (I’m tempted to go with a 10, but as is usual with Anderson, only future viewings might reveal just how brilliant this movie is)