As his films become increasingly part of pop-culture and the collective unconscious, the expectations for each forthcoming Wes Anderson film escalates to the point of attaining the dollar-eyed gaze of Hollywood commercialism. Anderson’s whimsical style and tone are always lush in visual presentation but does his love letter to a bygone Eastern Europe cake his vision in style rather than substance?
A flamboyant and charismatic concierge of a luxurious Hotel makes an unlikely friend in an unassuming lobby boy with whom he becomes embroiled in a plot of murder; a false will and a stolen piece of precious artwork.
Anderson’s films have the peculiar aesthetic of a motion picture animation (this is probably what made his adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox so engaging and intriguing) and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different. It’s a cheeky, sometimes shocking, fetishist dream of quirky characters and idiosyncratic humour that evokes a mixture of Mel Brooks; Napoleon Dynamite and Cluedo. If you have a penchant for French inspired films à la Amélie, then you’re checking into the right hotel.
The Bottom Line
Like a narrative matryoshka of exotic Eastern European locales; counts and Nazis; bakers and Hoteliers; assassins and authors and art, Grand Budapest weaves stories within stories and frames within frames. The final bombastic portrait that appears on screen probably suffers from unreliable narrators and far-fetched idealism but that is what this fictional Republic of Zubrowka is all about: an era drowned in painful history and exceptional longing. Wes Anderson echoes the writing of Stefan Zweig, whose work often revolved around dark subject matter, but is seen as a window into interbellum Europe – a world of aristocracy and bankruptcy; new republics and old ways but most importantly, a world sleepily awaiting a catastrophic German invasion and a war that would result in an ominous cloud of socialism falling over it all. Anderson combines all these old fashioned worlds and people into a single place, much like the Kingdom of Syldavia in the Tintin comics, and it all comes together in a neat luminous bow of his signature style.
Exteriors of the hotel and its surrounding mountains are models and paintings that distinctly match the artificiality of the way in which Anderson shoots his films and his subjects – a kind of postcard-photochrome comic book-like appearance. His characters seem trapped in his vision of symmetry; pans and crash zooms, suffused with popping, luminous colours. It gives a sense of the complete, iron-fist control Anderson wields over his whacky vision. I would say that this film is far more visually ‘boxed’ and immobile than any of his previous movies and, despite having a legitimate creative reason for this; the characters became a little too artificial. I think back to The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, whose characters were exceptionally organic, even in their weirdness. There was a sense of familiarity in it all, but in Grand Budapest, we see portraits of people that are difficult to engage with because this is more of a marionette show than a film pointing out the awkwardness and dysfunction inherent in us all. It’s not really something to fault the film by because again, it’s all in the style and aesthetic – this is a story told by someone telling a story of a story about a place and time that may or may not have existed. The most important thing is that we at least believe it, which is hard not to in a Wes Anderson film.
Style and aesthetic takes such centre stage in this review because it takes up such a huge part of the experience of watching the movie – he really lays it on thick here. You won’t leave the cinema pondering the hidden drama bubbling beneath its ‘Aristotelian’ characters; on the contrary, you’ll be trying to remember each cameo Anderson shoved into the running length of the film. His actors are like dolls, an ensemble he repeats in films because they too have become part of the furniture in his stories. The saving grace here is that Anderson has selected some of the most talented and similarly idiosyncratic actors and actresses that his films are never populated by tired and uninspired performances. They understand his voice and translate it well on screen. Ralph Fiennes is completely mesmerising and side-splitting when delivering his Andersonian dialogue and Bill Murray, despite a miniscule role, is just as dry as ever. In addition to Fiennes, I was particularly taken by Jeff Goldblum’s role as a Hungarian deputy and Tilda Swinton’s aged make-up effects, which took centre stage, like an overdone wedding cake, and it frankly didn’t surprise me that those effects were nominated for an Oscar. There are simply too many cameos to go over and it would ruin much of the Where’s Wally? fun you get with trying to catch each role and it would similarly spoil it if I went into the details of the plot. The story isn’t particularly deep or original, and seems very recycled from Zweig’s novels, but that’s part of the experiment Anderson is working with – and part of the fun. Like ‘Boy with Apple’ it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth all the fuss.
Wes Anderson has become increasingly obsessive and finicky with his style to the point that it’s overtaken the substance that had always come so naturally to his films. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to reflect on, but audiences not taken by aesthetic gymnastics might roll their eyes during certain sequences. From a personal standpoint, I found it to be one of Anderson’s better ‘style-scapades’ because I appreciated the sentimentality and freshness in his vision and approach toward an era and place that is often overlooked on screen. Nothing feels unmotivated in the movie and it’s expertly realised making The Grand Budapest Hotel highly recommended viewing.