The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
Gustav H., the fussy, beleaguered but chronically untroubled hero of Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film and best live action effort to date, is not a sick man — he’s just a terminally optimistic one: optimistic about his chances of survival in an increasingly hostile world, and about the base good nature in people who may very well kill him. We meet Gustav from a distance of three degrees and roughly eight decades: a teenage girl worshipful of the writings of a thinly veiled fictional caricature of Stefan Zweig brings us into the author’s drawing room sometime in the early ’80s, in turn taking us back to a trip he took to the once-formidable, now decaying hotel of the title in 1968, where he runs across former lobby boy and current owner Zero, who tells us of the glory days. In 1932, Gustav ran a tight ship at the Grand Budapest and existed in a sort of stasis of good drink, good sex, the good life in general. The place was his Rushmore, a pastel heaven of isolation, hedonism, simultaneous distance from and immersion in the essence of life itself. Then as now, you live to escape, but you escape to live.
It goes beyond simple pleasures of flesh or prosperity, not to say those aren’t enough; Gustav has a great old time but he also takes this bubble of his seriously. He has pride in his work. Much more than simply occupying a space in the Anderson oeuvre as yet another overgrown boy who is (a la Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum, Mr. Fox, Steve Zissou, Dignan) obsessed with controlling his surroundings, he represents in some ways the culmination of Anderson’s sense of his own utility as a filmmaker. For some time, it was easy to protest that Anderson’s diorama-like films seemed like visual marvels in search of a meaning, but on his last three projects he has discovered increasingly solid ground from which to form his unique, complex, gorgeously crafted universes-unto-themselves. Fantastic Mr. Fox took the most obvious and still the most appropriate route by formulating Anderson’s overstuffed ideas into a children’s story and fusing his sensibility with that of a master, Roald Dahl. Moonrise Kingdom adopted as its own the world and off-kilter perspective of a couple of children, which made Anderson’s surreal conception of their tiny island community not just ideal but eerily accurate.
But it’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its nesting doll structure and warring impulses of effervescent nostalgia and pain masked by a sickly grin, that finds Anderson asserting himself with finality as a master of cinematic storytelling. To go over, for the millionth time, the agony and chaos of Europe in the ’30s is almost too painful a task for so fervent a believer in romance and delicacy to consider, so he never says the baddies are Nazis, doesn’t give us a real country to see falling apart, and complies only tentatively with a cartoonish version of history that might have been borrowed from some fusion of The Great Dictator, The Lady Vanishes (which also revolved around a hotel in a fictional country and liberally used miniatures that gave the film a delightful air of slight unreality) and Animaniacs. Everything that happens in the film is beautiful, even if sexuality and violence cut through its elegant pastry with the bliss and agony, respectively, of the real world, and that beauty comes from the distance of memory, something Anderson expresses here with such expertise and verve as to imply he’s discovered his own sort of grammar. It’s a film deeply reliant on dead ideas, dead people, dead movements, yet not since the likes of Godard and Tati has someone made the movies seem so vital, so fun, so apart from everything.
The major evolution here past Moonrise Kingdom, a formidable achievement already, is in its sweep. There’s no doubt that Anderson spent a lot of time with the films of Ernst Lubitsch, and with the MGM oddball Grand Hotel, also about a European hotel that served as a converging point for various outsized personalities. (Anderson doesn’t conquer the artificiality of MGM, he embraces it and renders it crucial to his story.) You can easily imagine Lubitsch or Billy Wilder making something out of the cockamamie story of Gustav fighting hard to gain possession of a painting left to him by one of his elderly lovers (the chameleon Tilda Swinton), and at times Ralph Fiennes seems to be channeling John Barrymore circa Twentieth Century. However, Anderson is just as likely to take a cue — many cues, in fact — from the six brilliant thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made for Gaumont in the latter half of the ’30s, and even (directly) from a lesser Hitchcock picture like Torn Curtain. Those Gaumont movies were extremely tightly structured — some scholars and film buffs say the great director never improved on them — and exist in a breathless world that feels both wildly expansive and almost magically sealed off from life outside their square frame. In retrospect, this is an impression given by how they document the vital intensity and dread that cornered the whole of the Western world in that period. Anderson longs for that sense of urgent life, but also laments how quickly and terribly the world they document and describe would collapse, gone forever like the happily brisk pace of life at the Grand Budapest.
This picture may not be any more emotionally resonant than Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox but it cultivates a complicated story more assuredly. You’ll especially remember how Moonrise got so overly busy toward the end; The Grand Budapest Hotel is just as stuffed with information throughout, but it never overwhelms because every sequence is so delightful and the central personality of Gustav is so engaging. And from apparent study of the Gaumont pictures, Anderson’s learned his way around a beautifully crafted suspense sequence. Watch how Saoirse Ronan, playing the love of Zero’s life Agatha, covertly enters the hotel with what appears to be a mere collection of treats from the pastry shop that employs her only to end up inspiring a shootout, or how nightmares aboard trains, in lofts or alleyways can so quickly be spun on their heads. Anderson is enchanted by gruesome murder-mystery subplots and such wildly offbeat atmospheric touches as the eeriness of a deserted museum about to close, but more than anything he is taken, almost literally, by the Hitchcock dictum that inspired the title of this blog — this is no mere slice of life. It’s been dictated, enhanced, admired, remembered, lamented too many times to just be life anymore; that’s the essence of moviemaking, and storytelling itself.
Fiennes would be reason enough to see the film even if the rest of it didn’t work; he is extraordinary, a master of control and of fevered, impeccable grace. Anderson only briefly touches on the ache that seems to exist at Gustav’s core. He needn’t do more than that, for Fiennes tells hours more of the story in his face, his mannerisms, his eyes. It’s the most haunting comedic performance in recent memory, and is perhaps the filmed peak thus far of a man who has almost never not been impressive. There are other vivid creations here; the cameos are numerous, a source of charm and delight, but Tony Revolori is a splendid partner and a distinguished narrator (with the help of F. Murray Abraham as his aged counterpart), Ronan is a luminous presence and the film could use more of her if there had only been time, and the likes of Adrien Brody, Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe make their marks variously with menace and warmth. But not since Rushmore has a Wes Anderson film been less an ensemble piece, and arguably not even then. Fiennes’ Gustav is a complete creation, from his inappropriate explosions to his apologies for them to his doggedly obsequious yet stern negotiations with the murderous authorities. In every moment seems to burst a firecracker of some kind.
Anderson knows Fiennes is as important to this image of fun, urgency and unstoppable hilarity and action as he is; he knows his art department and design team are too, for they make their way into the above-the-line portion of the end credits. Impressively, for all its dealing in darkness and death, loss and yearning for another time, the takeaway from The Grand Budapest Hotel is a real feeling of buoyant joy. Gustav is an obvious stand-in for the director — his time was past before he was born, but it’s getting hard to imagine modern American cinema without him. With so much for him to show us, you walk out feeling like you’ve been somewhere in a way that can’t be replicated now or ever in the real world. Anderson made all this because reality wasn’t and isn’t enough for him. Real Nazis didn’t work for him, the real Europe wasn’t enough, the real 1930s weren’t enough, a real painting wouldn’t be enough just like real sci-fi young adult novels wouldn’t have been enough in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s easy to think this marks him as a man who wants to control everything, but this really just suggests that he longs for an infinite capacity to create — for the world he truly sees to be as wonderful and well-composed as the one he wants to see. But love is lost and conflicted heroes die at bad hands, even in Wes Anderson films; Zero cries not for some generic conception of past days but for the wife and child who died all too young. Loss of love is the essence of his life, and his only escape is into himself and his memories, but it’s a mature resignation that his riches let him cultivate — he visits the hotel on a routine basis, setting time aside for the unbearable memory of happiness. It’s no wonder that Zero wants to see the world through Wes Anderson-colored glasses, the full color that seems to meet no pain it can’t conquer with a dry wit or bit of awe-inspiring Academy ratio set design, because who wouldn’t?