Ain’t It Grand
(As featured on front)
Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is simultaneously a change-of-pace for the director and a fall back to the director’s unique style. The storyline mainly focuses on the relationship between the hotel’s new lobby boy, Zero; and its concierge, Monsieur Gustave. Told as a flashback within a flashback, each of the three corresponding sections are shot in three different aspect ratios.
The film starts with a cryptic scene of a young girl (it also ends with this scene) looking at a monument for a deceased writer whose name is Author. She proceeds to read his book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film then shifts to the aging Author delivering a monologue that puts the audience right into the action. Is this referencing the middle of the book, or his own experience writing his work?
The history of the once-glorious hotel is shared with the Author, Jude Law, by an older Zero Moustafa, F. Murray Abraham, over a dinner at the hotel. This sets the foundation for the profound story. The exploits of young Zero Moustafa, Tony Revolori, are experienced through film flashbacks showing his time as lobby boy for the Grand Budapest Hotel. The older Zero tells Author how he came about his vast wealth, has acquired the hotel, and is now the owner of the ancient and decaying relic of Europe’s past.
Zero is a lobby boy-in-training at the Grand Budapest. While there, he is under the tutelage of M. Gustave, played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes. Through adversity, this student-teacher relationship blossoms into a father-son relationship. As the film jumps from genre to genre, a jailbreak, the specter of war, a love story, chase scenes that harken back to German Expressionalism and Hitchcock thrillers, the audience comes to see how the bond between Zero and Gustave deepens.
Anderson constantly propels his camera throughout each scene to really drive home the point that Zero and Gustave are constantly in motion; either running errands in the hotel or running away from hostiles. Each shot is heavily ornamented, making it impossible to catch everything on the first viewing of this densely-layered film. Each new visit to Hotel will unveil another layer as it allows the viewer to find new meaning.
The film is expertly shot, probably Anderson’s most beautiful film to date; and the dialogue, particularly Gustave’s, is wonderful, witty, and snappy. Gustave is the perfect concierge for the regal Grand Budapest: opulent, overstuffed, and continental. He, along with the hotel itself, is a character that plays on the viewer’s imagination of what “Old Europe” was prior to the calamities of the 20th Century: rich pastries, mahogany train cars, a hotel in the Alps, priceless works of art, a museum full of objects from antiquity, and European elite delighting in numerous romps.
On the surface, the hotel and Europe are equally spectacular and palacial; however if you scratch the surface, you’ll find a handicapped shoe-shine boy, overworked staff, murderous rage from jilted heirs, citizens arrested and sent to prison based on race and ethnicity, and Europe consumed in war.
Gustave simultaneously serves as the caretaker of opulence as revealed in the hotel and of the old ways of Europe. These old ways include a robust knowledge of art and literature, a fine taste in decoration, food, wine, knowing every custom on the continent, etc. As much as Gustave is a caretaker for this illusionary world, he really isn’t a part of it. Fienne’s Gustave is both a gentleman and brute, insider and outsider, friend and lover. He is everything he is accused of being, both good and bad . . . except for being a hypocrite. When he feels strongly about something or someone, he takes a stand and fights with a ferocious rage.
Gustave is one of the few characters in film history where it feels completely natural for him to bring an elegance in describing a prison-cell fight, “What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living shit out of a sniveling little runt called Pinky Bandinski.”
A possible flaw with the story is all the characters, sans Zero and Gustave, are flat and two-dimensional. They are there to merely serve the plot or make us laugh, but never offer anything to further the story. The antagonists of the film are cut-and-copy villains, and it feels like most of the characters exist so Anderson can pad Hotel with cameos from his acting troop.
However, this may possibly have been done to specifically highlight the relationship between the two main characters. Gustave shifts from a master who requires an extreme amount of efficiency and obedience, to a man who becomes yet another caretaker . . . this time Zero’s. Although a strict boss, Gustave rewards Zero’s unwavering obedience and devotion with distant pride.
Gustave’s pride is crushed when Zero falls short, the only time he has, on a few details Gustave instructed after he breaks out of prison . . . at the most inopportune time. Like a merciless avalanche, Gustave buries Zero with dismissals and insults, until Zero replies with his backstory, a backstory Gustave never cared to think about or envisioned. Zero breaks his closely-held, heart-breaking secret . . . he is a refugee who fled from his war-torn country . . . alone. His family was massacred.
Just as dramatically as he leveled Zero with disdain, Gustave pivots into an apology and becomes Zero’s fiercest protector. This scene is the emotional climax of the film. An unbreakable bond is formed between a sociable cosmopolitan, a man who is at home everywhere; and a stateless refugee, a child who is at home nowhere. Hotel builds from various chases, flights, escapes, pursuits, and the current moment. All the ornaments and fluff exist to highlight and strengthen something real; a pure relationship between Gustave and Zero.
This humanity and love is hidden for most of the film, just like Europe’s ugliness is hidden by beautiful cinematography — everybody and everything is not what it appears. While much of the continent’s past is tucked safely away, bursting out only occasionally, it’s Zero’s guarded secret which takes center stage. Zero’s brief disclosure reveals who the two men really are. Zero, like Europe, survived trauma with a wounded spirit and innocence lost.
The past, particularly familial trauma, plays an important part in most of Wes Anderson’s films. While these themes mark a maturity in his work, if you’ve seen one Anderson film, you get the feeling you’ve seen them all. He has such a distinct and unique style, both cinematically and in his writing, that it seems hard for him to now break free. Anderson frames shots in the same exact way as in his other films . . . he pans. Anderson’s dialogue continues to be dry, witty, and hyper-literate which resonates a been-there-done-that quality, and that’s the shame of this great film.
It’s gotten to the point where it feels like Anderson is parroting himself. Save for the aspect ratios and slight deviation to black-and-white, there’s almost no experimentation in his filmmaking. Instead of introducing his viewers with new ways to showcase his style, he chooses to tweak old reliable, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited not withstanding. I don’t believe this comes down to personal taste when rooting and hoping a filmmaker tries different things. Anderson has yet to make a film different from the rest of his catalogue, and it’s holding him back artistically. There’s only so many times a film can unfold as fresh when it has the same cadence of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Hotel has all the hallmarks and fingerprints of a Wes Anderson film . . . and that is ultimately a positive and a negative. Great filmmakers find a way to display their style through different means. Barring their trademarks, their films feel fresh and different. Martin Scorsese understood that, and instead of doing another Mean Streets, he directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
These irritants shouldn’t factor into a film critique, but they should be considered when reviewing a filmography. Therefore, as a stand alone film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is grand, indeed. The mishmash of genres works surprisingly well, is finely crafted, and Fiennes’ well-written dialogue is poignant and delivered masterfully.
Wes Anderson is on the cusp of being considered a great filmmaker . . . he only has to break out of his comfort zone and create something new.