The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s meditation on history, loss, and cat defenestration. It’s a total return to form.
At last, Wes Anderson is back. After the self-absorbed misfire of The Darjeeling Limited, the not-as-much-in-it-for-adults-as-you-would-hopery of The Fantastic Mr Fox, and the modest recovery of Moonrise Kingdom, we finally have a truly top-drawer effort.
On the surface there’s not much here that is new to Anderson’s work – the sets, the typefaces, the quick-fire erudition, the symmetrical compositions and fast pans from one static setup to another are par for the course. The secret is that he’s managed to use them in services to a story that actually resonates. For the first time since The Life Aquatic I actually cared about what was going on here.
In the hunt for something new some have claimed that this is Anderson’s first period movie, but that overlooks the fact that Moonrise Kingdom was set in the 1960s – and, of course, since Rushmore all his films have been set somewhat out of time. What is different here is the way time is used. Anderson has always fetishised the vintage, or (if you prefer) the retro, with his worlds each having their own stylised mid-20th century feel. But here we see clearly, for the first time, what drives him in that approach.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a framing structure in which a girl visits the grave of an author and opens a book; the author (Tom Wilkinson) begins to narrate the story from the point of view of the 1980s; we flash back to the 1960s where he is played by Jude Law; Jude Law interviews F Murray Abraham, who tells his own story; we then flash-back to him in his youth, played by Tony Revolori. This kind of framing narrative appears in many of Anderson’s films – The Royal Tenenbaums also features a book, for example. But the sheer number of degrees of separation here, and the emphasis on their chronology, are both new. This nesting is slowly revealed as the key to Anderson’s vision – that history is a chain of linked narratives characterised mainly by loss and decay, a gradual falling away, and that the way to lesson the pain of this is through sheer force of will “to keep the illusion alive”. For Anderson, this ongoing act of genuine cultural remembrance is central to what civilisation itself is, and stands against the reset buttons and false histories of first fascism, then communism.
Yet even here, the point is undercut in an interesting way – the same brief framing scenes show the author to be highly celebrated. His grave proclaims him as “our national treasure”, and is shown to be a place of pilgramage. The fact it’s covered in hotel keys shows that he is venerated due to his authorship of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given the themes of historical continuity that emerge, and the fact that the fictional Eastern European setting of Zubrowka is now presumably a post-communist nation we can infer he is much loved for reconnecting the nation with its past.
But here doubt starts to creep in. It’s suggested that the book is non-fiction, but can we really be sure? The painting “Boy with Apple” is the plot’s core (sorry) MacGuffin, and there is some pointed business around whether or not it resembles Ralph Fienne’s character M. Gustav H. But the film casts doubt on that and instead draws a parallel with Jude Law as the author. Even as the film emphasises the vital nature of genuine links to the past, it throws into doubt the veracity and authorship of everything it’s showing. Is any of it real? Well, in the final analysis, of course not – it’s all a Wes Anderson fantasy, after all.
It’s the combination of specific tragedy in the main narrative, small acts of compensatory kindness, and those themes of generational loss suggested by the framing narrative that give the film its surprising emotional weight. After something as clumsy as The Darjeeling Limited, it would have been predictable if Anderson had just continued to make an increasingly dead series of over-designed follies. Instead we have this – his most heavily designed live-action film, and yet amongst his most affecting.
None of this would work of course without Ralph Fiennes, giving his best ever comic performance. I read something recently about dialogue often being either elocutionary or interpretive. That may or may not be accurate. But with the director’s love of stylisation and the dense text, it must be very tempting just to enunciate at high speed, vary the emotional pitch as best you can, and hope for the best. Instead the cast as a whole do a great job of making the dialogue really work, ensuring that the characters are fully realised, and Fiennes leads them in this. He’s very charming, and very funny.
Also, Jeff Goldblum is excellent in his role. He’s operating at maximum Goldblumosity. Someone throws his cat out of a window. And his spectacles are superb.
Wes Anderson movies:
The Royal Tenenbaums: A
The Grand Budapest Hotel: A
The Life Aquatic: A
Moonrise Kingdom: B
The Fantastic Mr Fox: B
Bottle Rocket: B-
The Darjeeling Limited: C+