There may be no other director so singular in their work as Wes Anderson, and his latest film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is quite possibly his crowning achievement.
Save for his low-key (but no less sentimental and heartfelt) 1996 feature debut, “Bottle Rocket,” each of Anderson’s films have been irrevocably defined by an increasingly distinct aesthetic and tonal lacquer. Love them or hate them, there’s little confusing an Anderson film with the work of any other auteur. He makes films precisely the way he wants to and does so in a way that is unmistakable.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes every stylistic tic, every theme, every affectation he’s ever indulged in and uses it to deliver the most visually distinct, emotionally rich film Anderson has ever crafted.
At its core, it’s a film about love and passion, but also about the way we love and remember those things that capture our affection. The film opens with a girl paying tribute to the author of a book she loves. The book she loves is the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel and its most dedicated concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and the fine mess he finds himself in when he is named the sole heir to a priceless painting that belonged to one of his guests. (Gustave has a penchant for romantically entangling himself with the hotel’s wealthy elderly patrons.) The story of Gustave was told to the author by Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who in his youth (played by Tony Revolori) was the protégé of Monsieur Gustave and who himself had his heart stolen by a sweet shop girl.
It’s a veritable nesting doll of a story, but somehow it never feels over-encumbered or bloated. Anderson ingeniously keeps the “layers” separate by filming each in their own separate aspect ratio. I’ve never seen a style choice quite like that and it’s frankly brilliant. It gives each layer a distinct feel and it reminded me of just how much can be packed into a 1.33:1 (i.e. the ratio that movies were shot in before the advent of widescreen) frame.
Aesthetically, Anderson has perpetually pursued a sort of dollhouse/diorama aesthetic. Here he takes that to almost extreme lengths, often blurring the line between live action and stop motion animation. It’s a bold decision (almost as though he’s throwing it in the face of the critics who have scorned his aesthetic choices) but one that pays off in spades. His films have increasingly felt like they take place in their own contained pockets and none moreso than “Budapest.” Given the layered nature of the narrative, it actually makes sense for parts of it to feel like a separate “world.”
But what makes this such a masterwork is that all of those stylistic choices are used in service of immersing us in this story and pushing the narrative forward. For all the visual panache on display (his obsession with symmetry remains as prevalent as ever), Anderson wants only to endear us to his characters, and what a remarkable job he accomplishes in doing so.
Gustave is an odd character. He takes an absurd amount of pride in an archaic form of service, one that is rapidly declining and shifting and his romantic proclivities might otherwise make him seem somewhat lecherous if not merely creepy. And yet because of Anderson’s immaculate ability to draw characters that are odd and yet endearing (“quirky,” as some people say) and because of Fiennes’ marvelous performance, Gustave becomes someone interesting and even charming in his own weird way. His love for the hotel and the deceased Madame D. (whose murder kicks off the film’s central plot) is as genuine as it gets, even if he seems like a total weirdo.
If Gustave is the heart of the movie then Zero is its soul. Coming from an impoverished background, Zero considers it an honor to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest and to be trained by Gustave. His devotion to his mentor is charming and the two make for quite a pair as they go on the lam. Even without all the framing surrounding their story, it would have been enough simply for Anderson to give us the story of Gustave and Zero and their adventures.
Of course, no Anderson movie would be complete without a murderer’s row of high profile actors in supporting roles and this might be the greatest lineup he’s ever assembled. Jeff Goldblum (whom Anderson managed to free from his regular speech patterns and tics to wonderful effect), Adrian Brody, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman. It’s kind of ridiculous. And yet they all fit so well within their parts. I never thought Keitel would make for such a wonderful fit into an Anderson film, and yet. All of them, though, even the ones who are barely present (a la Murray and Schwartzman) manage to add something. It’s not just actor window dressing. This might be the best thing Adrian Brody’s done in years.
It all adds up to a film that left me smiling and charmed for days. Anderson has crafted a film that manages to revel in and yet also acknowledge his trademarks while also giving us a story and characters that honestly and truly mean something to him and us. It’s a wonderful accomplishment and quite possibly my favorite of any film he’s yet made.