dir: Wes Anderson
Another fussy diorama for our delectation…
By now you know if you like Wes Anderson films or not. He’s made enough of them that it is virtually impossible for you to have watched them and still think that there is any possibility that they could vary or be different from what you think they could be like.
This is exactly like every film he makes. In case I haven’t been explicit enough. So, if you like the other entries in his oeuvre, from The Royal Tenenbaums onwards, there’s a good chance you might ‘like’ The Grand Budapest Hotel as well. I’m aware that Royal Tenenbaums wasn’t his first flick, that being Bottle Rocket, but his fussy aesthetic wasn’t established until his second flick, so there.
Alternatively, even if you’ve liked his previous films up to the last one, being Moonrise Kingdom, you could be sick of his fussy aesthetic, the familiarity of the same actors that he tends to use and their often affectless delivery, the way everything tends to be put together in the same way and filmed in the same way, you might have reached your limit.
In other words, telling you "it's just like his other ones" is both warning and further warning, for both haters and aficionados alike.
I would not call myself a devotee of what he does, or an unapologetic fan. I did give up several films ago hoping that he would radically change any aspect of how he works, because that seems too unreasonable an expectation on my part. Wanting people to change who clearly, in their own opinion and to their hefty profit both creatively and financially, see no reason to, is pointless and a little bit mad.
Of course, all that being said is a preamble where I imply strongly that this flick, the latest, is different in so many, many ways from his other flicks, showing at least that there is some kind of progression. Nah, not really, but there are some interesting variations on his usual themes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about some dingy flophouse in Budapest that has a roaring trade in hookers and falafel, where the high and the low come together to celebrate the virtues of ascots and monocles, and chamber music versus string quartets, and Beluga caviar versus... the cheaper kind.
Well, it could have been about some of that, but it wasn't. I was being a dick. The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't in Budapest. That's the first joke, or "joke", and if you don't find it funny, well, then Wes Anderson clearly isn't for you.
It's in Zubrowka, which doesn't exist, and never existed, but it doesn't matter. It's one of those vaguely Eastern European, alpine, lederhosen and yodelling kind of places. If a nun were to start singing, you wouldn't be surprised (in a non-Anderson film).
But the story, just to be deliberately difficult, is a story within a story told by another guy, all being read by a girl in a cemetery, who sits reading a book, written by a guy (Tom Wilkinson) who once visited the Grand Budapest as a younger man (Jude Law) who is told a story by the owner Mr Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abrams) about the concierge who used to run the place in its heyday, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).
Get it? Got it? Good. That heyday was just before what we assume is something like World War II. The hotel is run like a fussy, finely tuned machine, or like the set of a Wes Anderson film, and harkens back not only to an earlier era, but of a time when doing something exquisitely well was a celebrated art in and of itself.
Fiennes clearly has an absolute ball playing this delightful and thoroughly scummy rogue. His appearance and adherence to appearances is immaculate, he emphasises correctness in presentation at all times, and routinely expounds on exactly whatever he thinks about something, which everyone enjoys, surely. He is the blustering, opinionated fool at the centre of the flick around whom most other characters act flat and deadpan towards, which makes him look even more absurd. but it's done with affection, I guess.
Gustave yells something loud? Someone will respond in a hushed whisper, perhaps to calm Gustave's growing hysteria. Zero (played as a kid by Tony Revolori) is a Lobby Boy. You know he's a lobby boy because he wears a uniform and a hat that says Lobby Boy on it. In case you haven't noticed, Anderson really has a thing for people wearing uniforms. It might be sexual. Zero spends most of the film in one, but Gustave's uniform is looking very debonair, having a pencil-thin pimp moustache, and reeking of L'Air de Panache, his favourite cologne.
Of course we usually can't smell what's in a movie (though sometimes with Colin Farrell or Paul Giamatti onscreen, I sort of can), but you can practically smell the class wafting off the silver screen whenever he splashes it on. I imagine it smells like an olde worlde kind of musk, perhaps with undertones of leather and overtones of other people's reflected glory and money.
Apart from being the hypercomptetent concierge of this grand hotel, Gustave also spends as much of his time as possible pleasing the assorted aged ladies who are its patrons and guests. Chief amongst them is a dreary and frightened empress dowager type who really does think that Gustave cares a great deal for her. Tilda Swinton, even in heavy age make-up, to look like she's in her 90s, still looks great, really. And Ralph Fiennes would be lucky to bang those wizened old bones, and I'm sure his character does, though, considering his penchant for method acting on occasion (like when he shot actual Jews as preparation for his role in Schindler's List), I'm sure it's highly likely that he and Tilda 'prepared' offscreen in full makeup, just to get the motivation down right. And, because, why wouldn't you?
It turns out, and it's thankful that the Countess or Duchess or whatever she is doesn't know this, but Gustave makes a habit of servicing all the wealthy dowagers because it's in the hopes of perhaps getting something in their wills. She dreads going back home to her castle, and it turns out, with good reason, because she is soon to go off to that grand hotel in the sky.
As all of this is starting up (being the beginning of a farcical kind of heist-romp-caper kind of plot), Gustave takes the new Lobby Boy, being Zero, under his wing, teaching him not only the finer points of etiquette, deportment and service delivery, but also his underlying beliefs regarding the preferability of the earlier age's aesthetics and refinements versus the current age's slide towards fascism.
Anderson's films have never been overly political or really if ever addressed "real" world concerns, but this time at least he is creating and sustaining some allusions to what actually happened in Europe in the last century, and doubtless will again, whether it's in the Ukraine or Wollongong. It's one thing to ascribe a certain politesse to a character, and see it play out in a world of increasing darkness, but it's another to refer to that old world classicism as being the one spark of brightness that was staving off the dark.
I never would have made too much of it, except at the end of the flick the director specifically dedicates the film to Stefan Zweig. I'm not going to pretend that I had any idea who this guy was prior to that moment in time, or that I'd ever heard of him. In the cinema I was in, being an art house cinema, there surely was many a fusty beardo with leather patched elbows muttering "Yes, Zweig, of course, it all makes perfect sense". But now (thanks to the magic of the interlocking tubes of the internets) I know that he was a Jewish Austrian writer who was very popular in his day but who saw the rising fascist tide of the 1930s and 1940s and couldn't take it any longer, offing himself in Brazil. He just couldn't imagine that the scumbags would lose, a failing which they themselves never entertained, but should have.
Now that's cheery. It's too hard to draw any parallels between people I don't know and a chap who's life I knew nothing about until a day or two ago, but it's pretty easy to see what parallels Anderson explicitly makes between our own Earth history and the fussy film universe he creates. Bad things happen to people, and for no good reason. There is darkness in this exquisite dollhouse, there is murder most foul, and darker doings transpiring, but certain polite chaps stand up for what’s right, as so they should.
Gustave ends up on the run for reasons I won't go into, but, really, even though it's Gustave we're meant to care about, I think I cared more about Zero, who's a pretty keen chap himself. His scenes with Gustave are great because he's the reluctant straight man, but it makes perfect sense (well, what passes for sense in an Anderson flick) that he would idolise such a reprehensible man.
Yes, everything is exquisitely composed, constructed and shot to within an inch of its life. Yes, it makes it all seem artificial and painstaking, like a child's school project that's been laboured over by the parent. And yes, I did enjoy it a whole hell of a lot.
It is a rarefied experience though. Even though (I think) Anderson seems to be trying to add elements to his films that people don’t associate with him (violent gore and heaps of swearing), it makes for an odd fit for him, though it doesn’t detract from the overall.
I’m not going to pretend it’s a great film, or one that’s going to delight vast audiences. There’s a tiny audience for this stuff (comparatively). And I felt sorry for a lot of the actors in this flick, who seemed like there were in it for a few seconds, without much of anything of value to do.
If you get all the people that will see this in the cinemas and count them, in total they’ll amount to the equivalent of one single screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But that’s partly why a flick like this sticks out. People might mock what Anderson does, I might mock it, but it’s necessary more than ever for this to be an example of people willing to tell cinematic stories in a way that doesn’t involve Marvel or Batman, and doesn’t require 300 million dollars worth of CGI. It’s the only flick like it I’ll see this year, and while I’m certainly not a better person because of it, it did put a big old smile on my face.
7 times proper times swearing in moments of duress is still always hilarious out of 10
“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it.” – so many swears – The Grand Budapest Hotel.