Specificity is a hallmark of Wes Anderson’s work. Not only are the worlds he creates realized in a confidently nuanced fashion, but his artistic style itself is bracingly unique, and for better or worse operates mainly within the context of his own cinematic vernacular. There was a time some years ago when Anderson risked becoming a caricature of himself, but with his last several features, including this most recent endeavour, he’s taken a commanding next step in his career, advancing the development of his vivid and charmingly peculiar voice.
One might characterize The Grand Budapest Hotel as “historical fantasy”; the proceedings unfold in the distinctly European-esque Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional alpine nation complete with it’s own history and political dynamic. The vibrant production design paired with Anderson’s impeccable staging and camerawork certainly enhance the otherworldly quality of the locale. Without getting too far into the weeds of a rather busy plot (though it unfolds coherently enough), concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) is falsely accused of the murder of his octogenarian lover (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton) and forced to lam it with his trusty protege Zero the Lobby Boy. The pair’s efforts to outrun both law enforcement and a henchman of the murdered matriarch’s jealous son evoke the road trip/buddy comedy genre, yet remain firmly planted within the filmmaker’s distinctive wheelhouse.
It’s always exciting when Anderson brings a new actor into the fold, and Fiennes is marvelous as the dandy Gustave; the character’s penchant for addressing both strangers and familiars alike as “darling”, regardless of gender, is a particularly amusing touch. But new additions aside, this film, perhaps more than any other in the director’s catalog, reinforces the principle that once you work with Wes Anderson you always work with Wes Anderson. With appearances ranging from stalwarts like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to more recently initiated personnel (such as Edward Norton in a playfully meta riff on his role in Moonrise Kingdom), the casting plays like a retrospective of Anderson’s career. Almost all of the bevy of familiar faces tucked neatly into the ensemble work well, however I’m still not convinced that Adrien Brody jives with this crowd (talented though he is).
Anderson is a very clever writer and can sometimes even verge on being too clever, especially in the way he writes dialogue, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is benefitted by a healthy sprinkling of profanity. When the prim, proper and well perfumed Gustave periodically lets loose a well-timed “fuck” it’s almost a relief, allowing the audience to take a step back and acknowledge how pleasantly ridiculous (and really how fun) the whole pageant is. I was also struck by the film’s visual effects and how refreshingly analogue they seemed to be. Upon further research I discovered that Anderson actually used handmade miniatures for exteriors of the hotel (and I’d imagine some other set pieces). At a time when a distracting level of CGI has run rampant in American cinema (a mammoth pet peeve of mine), I vigorously applaud the filmmaker’s sensibilities in this regard.
Anderson has also devised a fascinating and intricate structure for Grand Budapest, nesting numerous timelines within themselves (I counted four total). The bulk of the story is presented in the form of flashbacks within flashbacks, and the sum of those narrative layers is then bookended by a pair of scenes that place the entire tale, and it’s teller, in an even deeper “historical” context. It’s an interesting technique that broadens the scope and enhances the relevance of the whole experience.
This film provided precisely what I’ve come to look for from Wes Anderson. It’s as unique and artful as comedic films get. It also delivers sporadic notes of sweetness that, for me, registered only after I’d finished unpacking it’s many components. But above all, it left me feeling excited about what I had just seen and the direction this filmmaker is headed.