(Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2014)
Out with the Old
On the heels of 2012’s nostalgia-soaked Moonrise Kingdom comes another foray into a bygone era from director Wes Anderson. For his latest film – The Grand Budapest Hotel – the filmmaker reaches even farther back into history and crosses the Atlantic to settle on an unstable Europe on the brink of war. In matters of style, Anderson’s latest serves as furtherance – and perhaps even the fullest realization yet – of his obsessively meticulous technique. The titular hotel itself is a sight to behold – a wondrously elaborate and intricately detailed dollhouse. And, the rest of the film’s various, fictitious settings aren’t far behind in terms of scale and craftsmanship. It’s as if he attempted to exercise the freedom he wielded with the entirely created world of Fantastic Mr. Fox but this time with real actors. It’s a noble feat of artistic vision and one that pays off immeasurably. Somewhat surprisingly, Anderson’s unique aesthetic hasn’t tired, and with his last three features, he’s proven that his unmistakable style complements his sharp wit and increasingly zany stories.
If Fantastic Mr. Fox found Anderson loosening up after the serious tonal shift in the final acts of both The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited (that many thought plagued both films), Hotel may very well be his most ludicrous yet. Severed fingers, a Mexico-shaped birthmark, sexually repressed octogenarians, a Shawshank-goofy prison break, and a toboggan/skiing chase sequence are all on full display here. And yet, Anderson hasn’t merely slipped into full self-parody with his latest, as it might seem at first. Where Fox and Moonrise Kingdom were both fairly straightforward (yet no less significant because of it), Hotel boasts a considerable amount of depth and ends on a rather poignant note that unexpectedly adds something profound to the oft-explored cinematic discussion regarding WWII and potentially reveals its creator’s personal feelings regarding the past.
Anderson’s no stranger to romanticizing the past. His work is full of antiques, relics, and styles of days gone by – the very ‘70s fashion sense of the Tenenbaum family, the outdated computers and oceanographic devices of Steve Zissou’s crew, the vintage luggage and other belongings of the Whitman brothers – but the past never took a central role in any of his films until the distinctly ‘60s setting of Moonrise Kingdom. And, like its immediate predecessor, Hotel too is steeped in nostalgia – a quality that typically ruins films by lesser talents but suits Anderson quite well. This trip through time is never schmaltzy and never stoops to the trite adage that “there’s no school like the old school” (though a thorough look at Anderson’s oeuvre just might reveal that he believes he was born at the wrong time), but engages the past in a manner both light-hearted and cleverly referential to cinema’s vast history (a character named Madame D., three different timeframes depicted through era-appropriate aspect ratios, and nods to his own films through extensive, archetypal cameos by Anderson staples).
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, the past plays an even more integral part in the story than in Kingdom. This notion is at first most notable in the film’s onion-like narrative that begins presumably in the present, then quickly peels back layers until resting in the early 1930s. We are introduced to the Grand Budapest Hotel through the words of a beloved author (Tom Wilkinson in 1985 and Jude Law in 1968) whose inspiration for his book came from a chance meeting with the owner of the hotel himself Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who reminiscences of the glory days when the hotel was kept in tip-top shape by the likeable and charming M. Gustave (a wonderful Ralph Fiennes). Though much of the film is recounted through narration provided by the author and an aging Moustafa, the voice of the film belongs to Fiennes’ Gustave – a character poised to join the pantheon of immortal Anderson caricatures that includes Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum, Margot Tenenbaum, and Mr. Fox to name a few. Gustave prizes a neatly ordered existence, exceptional professionalism (at least on the surface), and strict adherence to the “way things are.” But, he also conceals a foul mouth, a latent homosexuality, and a penchant for fulfilling the desires of his elderly, female aristocratic guests who Moustafa describes as insecure and desperate. Our introduction to Gustave by way of the new lobby boy and recent refugee Zero (Tony Revolori) – a younger Moustafa – may suggest a comical mess of contradictions and frivolity – a character given quirks purely for the sake of humor like Bill Murray’s Zissou or Owen Wilson’s Eli Cash. But, as the film progresses, Anderson’s intentions become clear, and Gustave becomes a tragic figure in part due to external factors of a changing political and cultural landscape and his refusal to accept those changes.
Gustave, then, represents a prewar Europe – a brand of surface-level sophistication concerned with codes and manners – that is unceremoniously usurped by the growing threats of fascism and communism that would go on to shape the modern continent. His bedding stately, high society guests suddenly no longer feels like a humorous gimmick, but rather an explanation of his character. Though Gustave may prefer the company of men (only ever hinted at), he feels most comfortable with the dying elite who could only possibly feel desperate and insecure in the face of the end of their way of life. This assertion comes full circle in a late-film scene that mirrors an earlier one. Gustave, Zero, and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) are on a train when soldiers board and request papers. Just as in the first sequence, Zero’s papers are not legitimate, but Gustave’s smooth talking and reliance on personal connections can’t save him this time around. Gustave’s Europe is no more.
Of course, Hotel is still a comedy. And, it still takes place in a silly, fictional country known as Zubrowka. And, Europe is unquestionably filtered through a decidedly American-born Anderson lens. But, this unexpected bit of personal flair and thoughtful touch makes Hotel stand out as a significant chapter in Anderson’s work. He even hints that Gustave is not alone in his pining for days gone by: Moustafa too laments the decline of his once extravagant hotel. In ’68, the luxuriousness and liveliness of its colorful halls have been traded in for neutral-colored concrete walls and unspectacular designs indicative of a Soviet-run Eastern Europe. As a filmmaker, Anderson seems to have the most fun when exercising the limits of his creativity. Here, that takes place mostly before the fascists take over. Anderson, then, likely shares Gustave’s love of the old, and The Grand Budapest Hotel may very well be the closest we ever get to this unsentimental director openly pining for the yesteryears.