The Grand Budapest Hotel and Wes Anderson’s Resolve
Every new Wes Anderson film bears some resemblance to the one which preceded it. He often employs the same techniques and tricks—centered compositions, pastel color pallets, never-changing wardrobe—but with each new feature, Anderson finds new ways to employ his style in service of the deep melancholy which often lays just under the surface of his seemingly frivolous fantasies.
The Grand Budapest Hotel continues this trend. The film’s labyrinthine nesting doll structure is told by two narrators, one directly involved in the action of the story and the other not, 30 and 50 years removed, respectively. The timelines are delineated by three different aspect ratios, but they are also distinguished by an increasingly controlled and regimented aesthetic going backward in time. The portion of the film set in the 1980s in which an old writer (Tom Wilkinson) sets the stage is seen through a playful camera, one prone to be distracted by the writer’s grandson, whip-panning to the boy after his voice can be heard interrupting his grandfather’s monologue. The writer takes us back to the 1960s when he was a younger man (now played by Jude Law) staying at the Grand Budapest. Here, the film indulges in many still long shots, allowing the viewer to observe conversation from a distance. The hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) tells the writer the story of his time as a lobby boy for the Grand Budapest. The hotel’s fey concierge, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and the younger Zero (Tony Revolori) get mixed up in a caper involving a painting left to Gustave by the recently deceased 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a client of the Grand Budapest and Gustave’s sexual companion. Her family is unhappy with this decision, so they frame Gustave for the murder of Madame D. This section, which makes up the bulk of the film, is shot in Academy ratio and is characterized by precisely timed sight gags and a breathless pace. The looseness of the initial frame narrative and the stillness of the secondary one are gone, replaced by a manic tone, defined by quick, exacting cuts and long tracking shots.
Anderson cuts on nearly every piece of dialogue. Characters rarely share the frame when they’re speaking to each other. The fragmentation of these exchanges could have resulted in a stilted and awkward comic rhythm, but Anderson uses the frequent cuts to layer each sequence with more jokes. When Madame D.’s family suspects their lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) of secretly working for Gustave, they send their resident thug (Willem Dafoe) to intimidate him. When the thug is unable to coerce a confession from the lawyer, he throws the lawyer’s cat out the window. The shock of this moment almost forces a laugh. Anderson then cuts back to Goldblum, whose flat delivery of the line, “Did he just throw my cat out the window?” acknowledges the absurdity of the action. Then he cuts to the cat’s bloody corpse, clinically shot from above in an acknowledgment of the horror of the action. This pattern is repeated often throughout, and it reflects the tonal structure of the entire film. Zero’s love interest Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) works in a pastry shop. This seemingly inconsequential detail initially comes across as an excuse for Anderson to feature beautifully designed cakes, but it comes into play later when Agatha’s confections are used to smuggle knives and other tools to Gustave in prison. In the ‘60s portion of the film, Moustafa, and by extension Anderson, is hiding the violent heart of his story inside a complicated caper plot.
Violence and tragedy are all along the edges of The Grand Budapest Hotel, always threatening to break in. This is displayed by the occasional intrusions of the crudeness of modern life, like Gustave’s frequent swearing or the brief gag in which Owen Wilson introduces himself as Monsieur Chuck, but Anderson does not let the darkness in until late in the film. The pall of the oncoming Second World War (or a war very much like it) is cast over the whole movie, but it does not reveal itself until Anderson’s Nazi surrogates, the Zigzags, infiltrate the Grand Budapest. The tragic off screen death of Agatha is revealed only in Moustafa’s narration. Anderson used to engage with death more closely, but Moustafa’s offhand recollection is devastating because of the distance he feels from it. Tragedy becomes a hazy memory, a sharp pain buried deep within you, like a knife in one of Agatha’s cakes.
At first glance, Gustave H feels like a variation on a familiar Anderson character type. Like Max Fischer and Royal Tenenbaum before him, Gustave appears to be a loveable scoundrel, possessed by a singular notion of culture, class, and decorum. These obsessions manifest themselves differently, but the one thing which has united most of Anderson’s loveable scoundrels is that they are all liars. Gustave is compulsively honest, even when telling the truth will put him directly in harm’s way. In this way, Gustave reveals himself to be not much of a scoundrel at all. He has the previous Anderson protagonists’ cunning and wit, but where they are petty, Gustave is gracious and forgiving. Where they are fundamentally suspicious, Gustave is welcoming. Where they lie, he tells the truth.
Even when they are not lying, Anderson’s characters have traditionally kept their true feelings to themselves. They bury them under a lifetime of material obsessions and parental neglect. Gustave is unburdened by these things. The turning point in Anderson’s evolution from Max Fischer to Gustave H is his Indian road trip comedy The Darjeeling Limited (2007). The film follows three brothers who try to reconnect with each other and learn how to express their feelings in the wake of their father’s death. This struggle is present in almost all of Anderson’s films, but this was the first time he made a film explicitly about how to deal with it. Anderson is questioning the value of the pet themes he had thoroughly explored in his four previous films. This makes The Darjeeling Limited one of Anderson’s most confused and difficult movies, but it also marks the first time the audience grappled with the idea of a “Wes Anderson movie.” It is also the last movie Anderson made which even pretends to take place in the real world.
Since Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Anderson’s films have grown increasingly fanciful. He’s doubled down on all of his favorite stylistic tics and has all but abandoned shooting on location, choosing instead to set his films in fictional locales which make his fantasy vision of New York in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) look gritty by comparison.
All of Anderson’s films are about endings—the end of childhood, the dissolution of family—but The Grand Budapest Hotel is the first one about the end of an era. Gustave’s whole way of life is overtaken by the crashing waves of fascism and the modern world. When the Zigzags stop his train and ask Gustave to go with them, he does not fight. Gustave would rather die than live in a world so diametrically opposed to the one he knew. Anderson continues to fight for his style and for his values. Here, he makes a compelling argument for his way of making cinema, and like Gustave, he will not let the tide take him.