The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his most self-critical
To say Wes Anderson has a distinct style would be an understatement. To write it on intricately arranged letterhead would be far more appropriate. Anderson’s affinity for diorama aesthetics, stunted emotions, and garish colors are no secret. Just ask the makers behind SNL’s digital short “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders,” which uses all of the above in creating a parody trailer for Anderson’s “handmade horror.”
Anderson has serious detractors, too, many of whom see his aesthetic peccadilloes as creative stagnation. Movie Mezzanine‘s Noah Gittell characterizes the director’s stagnation as a “solipsism” that borders on navel-gazing. The elaborately-framed The Grand Budapest Hotel, which comes out on home video later this month, is in line with Gittell’s critique that the director goes “deeper and deeper into his own universe” just as “reality gets pushed further and further to the edges of the screen.” In Grand Budapest however, navel-gazing is precisely Anderson’s point because for the first time, Anderson does something wholly new: he criticizes himself.
We begin with a present day memorial for a beloved author before looking back in time to that author’s reflections on writing a book about a long-dead man’s memories of working for a long-long-dead concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel. (Whew.) Even typing Anderson’s Russian nesting doll of story frames feels excessive and, like in that SNL short, to the point of parodying overt narration or the drawing of stage curtains. Story has never been paramount in Anderson’s filmography, and Grand Budapest‘s elaborate frame-within-a-frame-within-a-frame pushes that insignificance to new extremes.
But there is a core story here. The Budapest’s head concierge Monsieur Gustave is forced to let go of tidy seclusion inside his precious hotel as the fictional nation of Zubrowka and the world at large gives way to war. As Gustave, Ralph Fiennes embodies the kind of disreputable adult male that fits right in with Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum and George Clooney’s Mr. Fox. With a perfectly trimmed mustache and coiffed hair, Gustave is, on the outside, prim and proper and his liberal application of cologne is an offensive distillation that to him, appearance is nine-tenths of the law. When he’s not sizing up and exterminating any unwanted elements from the hotel’s rigorous checklist of tasks and chores, he beds aging aristocrats who shower him with praise and nepotism alike. For if one doesn’t have wealth, appearing to is Gustave’s next best option.
Anderson distills Gustave’s hypercritical attention to detail in brisk montages, as the concierge zips through lobbies and kitchens checking lists or making notes to the subordinates he passes. It’s an involvement in line with that of a director, and Anderson’s overly tidy cataloguing of a scout camping list or documenting the extracurriculars at Rushmore Academy come immediately to mind (In Budapest, a particular letter is too twee to read without an equally twee magnifying glass.) Gustave’s subtle contempt for his employees suggests Anderson might be a touch too anal, especially when that contempt is a far cry from the reverence and respect Gustave shows for the aging widows who finance his simulated high society lifestyle.
In an excellent blog post, David Bordwell observes that Anderson seems “obligated” to show he can jostle his mise-en-scene and truly, Grand Budapest‘s aesthetic is its most refreshing element. Static shots of rigidly staged sets and ornate costumes abound but only so Anderson can muddy it all up — quite literally, at times. Hotel corridors are pumped full of bullets and Gustave’s royal purple uniform is covered in mud and soot. In stern entanglements with the military police (led by Edward Norton), a slight ruffling of Gustave’s hair is enough to make his elegance seem petty with an entire nation teetering on all out war.
What’s more, tidy shots are disrupted with disorder and darkness, with disemboweled cats and severed appendages. A painting of graphic lesbian sex replaces a stolen priceless painting in a crude sexual addition, but one that’s subtle compared to an insertion of an elderly woman’s breasts during Gustave’s sexual escapades. Even the harvest reds and ambers in Fantastic Mr. Fox and Rushmore are swapped out for dull grays and sullen blues. In the film’s most visually brilliant sequence, a deadly game of “cat and mouse” inside a darkened museum plays with light and shadow in a manner worthy of F.W. Murnau, a comparison that’s surely never entered a conversation about Anderson’s work before.
Anderson has traded in his scrapbooks and 64-color Crayon sets for knives and nudie mags to invert his familiar themes. Certainly, Grand Budapest is another handmade collage but one that flips paternal anxieties on their head and zips past the lovestruck naivete between a talented baker (Saorise Ronan) and Gustave’s protege Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). This is inarguably Anderson’s bleakest film to date, its subject matter made all the more depressing as it drowns in its own fictional meta-layers. Peeling away multiple frames reveals romances and struggles but as the film pulls forward in time to a now aged and tired Moustafa (played with tenderness and wisdom by F. Murray Abraham), Moustafa’s fond recollections of his mentor reduce Gustave to a distant memory — one of a man who never existed in a land that’s not on any map on the cusp of a war that never happened. Sentimentality becomes a hollow shell of two legacies and in doing so, Anderson tries everything short of razing the Budapest itself.
In a moment of emotional nakedness, Monsieur Gustave’s would-be poser proves himself to be beyond fanciful particulars just as the scene’s black and white photography marks another milestone in Anderson’s aesthetic. Unlike any work that’s preceded it (including masterpieces Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) The Grand Budapest has everything to do with life and death. In an instant, a monochrome switch washes away pomade, signature scents, and our tempered expectations of the director. Quite simply, Anderson doesn’t need what we’ve all come to expect from him.
- WUD Film screens The Grand Budapest Hotel on Mon, Jun 5 at 9:00p at the Memorial Union Terrace. Admission is FREE.