Springing forth from the mind of the most recognisable of contemporary American auteurs, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel places the story of a rather brilliant man, the concierge at the titular hotel, M. Gustave H. against the backdrop of a Europe on the verge of war, and on the eve of great and permanent change.
It marks something of a progression for a filmmaker all so often written off as being resistant to such cinematic metamorphosis, in the respect that it’s a film both of the personal, and of the wider. Rich as they are, Anderson’s films have often focussed on the immediate, with little to no thought towards any kind of external commentary or insight. This isn’t so much a criticism of the director’s earlier work, as there’s no reason not to believe this was by design, hence the use of the term ‘progression’, but in adopting this approach for The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson has reinforced his cinematic standing. The resulting work manages to recall the socia-chaoic cinema of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu, the scope and nihilism of the same filmmaker’s La Grande Illusion, and the eve of war satire of Ernst Lubitsch, and yet remains recognisably Anderson-ian. To put it particularly clumsily, in mastering a couple of new tricks, Anderson hasn’t lost any of the old magic.
Ordinarily casting the boundaries of his snow globe approach to replication tight, here Anderson looks further, beyond the contrivances of familial dispute or coming of age personal exploration. Instead, an attempt to understand the wider nature of man is made. Comparisons once again to La règle du jeu are welcome and appropriate. In a similar way to how Renoir plotted his scathing examination of the upper classes against the backdrop of a looming war, with wider analogy feeding in to the immediate, Anderson too places the personal against a larger backdrop, in turn rolling out his most well-rounded piece of work to date.
While Renoir acted in real-time, and on the verge of actual War In Europe, Anderson cannot help but look to the past. That said, contemporary critique of contemporary warfare doesn’t seem like Anderson’s thing, though the manner by which he has gone about this (to ignore the now in favour of a previous war from a previous time) is in itself a statement of sorts, albeit very probably inadvertent (were one so inclined to a distinctly post-Iraq message is very much attachable: that we were fighting for something worth fighting for back then). In referring back to that previously mentioned nihilism in which the harsh and ungodly is treated with a cool air, the reaction is in the non-reaction. Rather than face head on certain things, Anderson subtly acts around them, which in turn sees them amplified by their very absence or ambiguity. The film’s closing epitaph, in which this comes full circle, is the director at his most devastatingly sad.
Anderson’s work at it’s most emotionally affecting disengageswith autopilot and sees the filmmaker suffer an aesthetic fracture point. The Royal Tenenbaums and the ‘Needle In The Hay’ sequence sees the director flirt with (relatively) abstract montage, while in portraying the death of Ned Plimpton in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Anderson flips entirely (HANDHELD!!!). Here in The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson turns to black and white film stock for the first time in his career since the first version Bottle Rocket to deliver the film’s most devastating blow. A hue at odds with his unique use of colours, a timeless tale is rendered even more so thanks to a bold about turn.
The world is based upon one that resembles the real, in the never-existed land of the Republic of Zubrowka, but Anderson doesn’t stoop to the contrivances of the other fictional land of Hollywood, and mask his characters in distracting or comical artificial accents (in turn, Harvey Keitel’s Euro-con comes via Brooklyn, while Saoirse Ronan keeps a hold of her Irish accent). Bringing to mind Chaplin’s Tomainia, or the unnamed war of Louis Malle’s Black Moon, Anderson is free to more cuttingly examine whatever he chooses by “inventing” a land. Anderson’s interpretation of Europe is one carved from influences as diverse as Hergé and Max Ophüls, the work of the latter of whom is evoked in the crediting of his one time collaborator, Stefan Zweig, one of the pre-eminent cultural lynch-pins of the first half of the 20th century. The elaborate (even by this meticulous director’s own standards) set design of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel verges on the fetishistic, though in a very knowing manner that at once both indulges in and destroys the film’s central thesis of Nostalgia. Anderson’s nostalgia ain’t for the bright eyed either, with the 1960s an eso often enshrined in idealism, especially by the strand of American filmmakers so heavily inspired by European cinema here shown up for a period already rife with decay, fading next to the glory days of the earlier heydays of the hotel. Plastic cladding replaces beautifully rendered walls, while ‘Boy With Apple’, the source of so much woe and wonder in the earliest-set portion of the film becomes an off-kilter piece of background decoration, once shorn of the aura and mystique of the people who grant its status as such.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most expansive movie, crossing borders both geographic and temporal. The ambition of the scope is replicated in a number of set pieces, that flitter between live-action, miniatures-work and both hand-drawn and computer-generated animation. A wonderfully executed prison escape illustrates the expert use of different technologies, while just as thrilling is a downhill chase, which takes in all manner of spaces and mechanics, and ends with a bona-fide cliffside stand-off. This combination of technologies makes Anderson A Very Contemporary Auteur, and the future go-to answer when one seeks an answer to the question of “Is CGI just for the blockbuster dullards?“. Three aspect ratios perform the task of representing the three different time periods in which the various sections of the film take place, the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1980s. Again, while Anderson has played around with a shifting aspect ratio in the past, this marks the first time it’s been employed to such a degree.
It is perhaps in his declaration that the luxury of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be “Too decadent for current tastes” that Anderson is at his most honest. Though it is a line delivered on-screen by a character referring to the film’s central heartbeat of a hub, it’s easily read as a fragment of fourth-wall breaking piece of self-criticism, in reference to his film, himself and his work in general, and the place that those things occupy within the contemporary cinema.