I don’t know whether it’s psychic, fate or coincidence, but Wes Anderson movies always indicate a significant landmark in my life. Now The Grand Budapest Hotel marks my graduation from university. Does the plot have anything to do with this? No, but I will carry that association for the rest of my relationship to the film. It already means a lot to me. There is an irony with the films prologue in how the author says how he has writers block – stated in traditional Wes Anderson affectionate pretense as scribephenia. I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel a month ago and have struggled to begin reviewing the film. It’s too rich and too dense. Anderson knows this. In the first 5 minutes we jump from perspective to perspective until we enter the meat of the story. It’s a deliberate distraction to provide the amusingly tenuous connection of word-of-mouth myths. It’s an interesting setup, almost as if Anderson wants us aware of his presence, but the film doesn’t become a true delight until we’re introduced to Gustave and Zero.
Ralph Fiennes performance has been frequently lauded, considered perhaps the best performance in a Wes Anderson film. While he doesn’t have the emotional weight of Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic or Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, he certainly has the gravitas for it. Fiennes delivers a bitingly deadpan performance, balancing his composure from proper to explosive with captivating precision. Monsieur Gustave is a man who believes in the standards of The Grand Budapest Hotel and those standards are a series of formalities and conduct that seem rather frivolous. It appears to reflect the way Anderson designs his films, full of frilly but meticulous production design and conscientious characters. But Anderson isn’t about these visual quirks, he cuts to the core. That’s what makes his films so special because inside the core is a tragic undercurrent of loss and misguidance. This pretty and unique design is just the shell.
Although we are allowed to learn of Zero the lobby boy’s backstory, one that makes him an incredibly compelling character, Gustave remains ambiguous. In fact, it is difficult to imagine him as a boy or lobby boy. The heart of Gustave is his relationship to Zero, played wonderfully by Tony Revolori, a soon-to-be familiar face in Anderson’s acting company I hope. Zero’s anxious stares and awkward mumbles provide a brilliant contrast to the otherwise perfectionist world. A scene significantly repeated is one wherein Gustave protects Zero and it seems like an incidental obstacle on their journey. But upon viewing it builds emotional weight as it sums up what Gustave is willing to risk for another. Ostensibly an unusual moment. I imagine this will be a film has a multiplying power upon rewatch. Rushmore and The Life Aquatic took a little time to get the most out of little and now the Jaguar Shark scene makes me burst into tears even out of context. Gustave and Zero’s brotherhood is the best duo Anderson has created since Max and Mr. Bloom.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly Anderson’s darkest film yet. It takes the break-neck speed of Fantastic Mr. Fox and the lashings of violence and shoot-outs of The Life Aquatic and combines them to full effect. He even admitted that he didn’t what he was doing with the action scenes of Aquatic and made them deliberately simple and pathetic. Clearly he has learned since. And it does appear that he has accumulated the aspects of the visual styles of his other films. There’s stop-motion, annotations, elaborate sets and mini-sets. But it’s not derivative of his other films as many have argued that Anderson is stuck in a cycle of repeating himself. In condensing his style for a 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to his usual incredibly wide angle lenses, it adapts the Anderson trademarks. The unique and cinematic distortion of the image is still present, but instead of the sides of the frame, it’s now found on the angle of the character and the way they blend into the background as if they’re integrated into his world even more than he has done already.
However, it can be a victim of its dense 90 minute runtime. With such brief glimpses of many familiar faces, none of them are developed with such time devoted to a convoluted plot. Granted, they’re certainly welcome to fill up all the bit parts as long as you’re aware that it’s a full house. Willem Dafoe, the antagonist, is the only one who’s motive feels lacking but I guess he represents more than just himself. Nevertheless the film is a joy to watch – delivering thrills, wonderful deadpan humor and a sprawling imagination. Clunky at rare times but not as severe as Moonrise Kingdom‘s worst moments. None of this drag the film down, fortunately. It’s too much fun. I do wonder if Anderson will have a film that hits the spot quite like his stretch of films from 1998 to 2007 but his streak since is still satisfying. There’s a running joke in Grand Budapest. Poetry is always interrupted for a feast of vulgarity. I think that sums Wes Anderson up a bit. Serious, but not too seriously.