The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his… ahem… special guest (Tilda Swinton) in the reddest elevator ever. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Wes Anderson’s new movie [New Anderson Movie] has arrived! And while reviews are almost all very positive, they differ dramatically in how they think it compares to the rest of the movies in Anderson’s oeuvre.

I’ll get to my thoughts about [New Anderson Movie] in a while. But first…

Moviegoer 1 calls [New Anderson Movie] “a masterpiece — the most ‘Andersonian’ movie yet! You can see pieces of all of his previous films here, like he was building to this one all along!”

Moviegoer 2 disagrees, saying “Anderson has finally sunk into the bottomless pit of his own self-indulgence. All of the flaws that have held him back from greatness before have intensified. His insufferable idiosyncrasies and inclination to overdecorate has suffocated any trace of a human heartbeat worth caring about.”

“You must have seen a different movie than I saw,” says Moviegoer 3. She heralds [New Anderson Movie] as the one she’s been waiting for: “Finally, we felt something for his characters! This time, he went beyond using actors as melancholy dress-up dolls and found real heart and soul! It wasn’t just a bunch of self-conscious posing like [One of Those Other Anderson Movies] — it makes us care!”

Moviegoer 4 says “Shut up, Moviegoer 3. Everybody knows that [A Different Anderson Movie] is the best one, and everything since then has tried to recapture that magic.”

Moviegoer 5 points out that [New Anderson Movie] has a few moments of surprisingly intense tragedy that feel out of place in an Anderson film, especially amidst so much quirky comedy … which is exactly what Moviegoer 6 said about [The Previous Anderson Movie]. Moviegoer 7 is relieved that Anderson had finally made a movie serious enough for adults, while Moviegoer 8 insists that all of Anderson’s films are deeply serious films for grownups, moving us through stylistic flourishes that remind us of things we loved in childhood.

Moviegoer 9 is just glad that Anderson finally got a real, sophisticated, relatable performance out of [Leading Man in Anderson Movie], which then sets Moviegoers 1-8 to shouting about how [Leading Man in Any Other Anderson Movie] was so much more impressive.

And so it goes.

Maybe you’re a Rushmore fan. Maybe you said that Anderson finally found his ideal medium with the puppets of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. For the record, when it comes to Wes Anderson films, I’m a Royal Tenenbaums / Moonrise Kingdom / Life Aquatic man.

But I love all of them — their meticulously diagrammed worlds; their oddball central characters; their heavily populated supporting casts; their way of sounding like high school play rehearsals; their whimsical tangents and abrupt turns into tragedy and blood.

Almost all of them have tested my patience in one way or another. But then, watching them again, I’m suddenly ambushed by a moment, and I’m weeping quietly. A fleeting pause in a conversation, or the way a character hesitates while raising a cracker to his mouth, can make me laugh out loud. A seemingly incidental line that I’ve heard in three previous viewings suddenly rings out like a bell, resonant with thematic significance. A wolf raises a defiant paw, and a lump swells in my throat.

Anderson’s films have the power to surprise us by evoking emotions in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, because of the way he refrains from telling us how to feel. He lets decisions surprise us without telegraphing them ahead of time. His characters’ stoicism, their refusal to let us in on their interior worlds or explain everything for us, makes us uncomfortable. We’ve been spoiled by self-explanatory cinema, and now we’re looking at whole communities whose souls are buried deep beneath mannerism and scripted conversations… kind of like real life.

They are all — with the low-budget exception of Bottle Rocket — vigorously decorated, pageant-like films that earn their comparisons to stage plays, dioramas, and costume parties. They are all characterized by a deep sadness that comes from some kind of innocence lost. They are all about children alienated from the adult world in some way. Families are usually fractured, but we’re not exactly sure why — there’s just a pervasive incompleteness to them, a shared dissatisfaction that often leads to misbehavior. And they are usually about one character who rises above the rest because of a unique vision, or an overpowering personality, or a seemingly ridiculous romantic quest that makes others roll their eyes in exasperation… but then people rally around to affirm that Quixotic spirit because it really does demonstrate what makes human beings special.

As Matt Zoller Seitz has observed, Wes Anderson is a big fan of Peanuts — especially A Charlie Brown Christmas — and all of his characters can remind us of Charlie Brown or other characters in that community. They all want to figure life out, and they usually end up getting a taste of it when the fellow who’s aggravating all of them with what looks like a silly dream is suddenly illuminated as a kind of saint. And as many others have pointed out, the children carry a kind of ageless wisdom, while the parents have lost the plot.

Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and “The Divine Zero” (Tony Revolori). Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Yes, the films are similar in many ways, and not in others. Yes, the artifice in one will bother some and enchant others, while the next one will have a different balance and inspire different responses. But at this point, isn’t it kind of silly to write a review declaring “This is the one” — since every single Anderson film has a host of champions who revere it like a natural wonder?

I’m bored with comparisons. Over time, I’ve been blessed by all of these movies, and I’ve seen them all more than once. Let’s talk about something else… like what they’re really about, what rings true to our own experiences, and how consistently Anderson celebrates a kind of mysterious and reconciling grace in communities of the bungled and the botched.

And since this year’s Anderson film — The Grand Budapest Hotel — is here, let’s talk about this one.

What’s it all about?

It’s about a remarkable concierge named Gustave H. who oversaw the day-to-day business of a magnificent hotel in a fictional European country. Gustave is something of a wretch — he sleeps with rich, blonde, elderly women, charming them into generosity. He is incredibly fussy about superficial things… like color coordination. (Wait’ll you see the hotel.) And he’s often rather rude to his employees.

But he has his admirable qualities too. He loves his hotel and all of its procedures, decorations, and high standards.

When he takes an interest in training a new lobby boy named Zero Moustafa, they end up on an adventure to recover a legendary Renaissance painting called “Boy with Apple,” which one of his favorite elderly lovers left him in her will. But this leads to great civil unrest, as the old woman’s family believes Gustave to be a con artist.

Soon, Gustave and Zero are off as fast as fantastic foxes, running for their lives from one adventure to another, pursued by a devilish assassin, and aided by a clever attorney, a brave young bakery girl, a gang of tattooed prison breakers, and a spectacular conspiracy of hotel owners. And along the way, Moustafa learns to respect his master, and his Gustave’s best self becomes inspired by the boy he calls “The Divine Zero.”

But what is it really about?

Like most Anderson films, it’s about all kinds of Andersonian themes:

  • Men who really screwed up… but let’s meditate on their stories and we’ll find that they, like all of us, are still worthy of grace and love.
  • Men who didn’t grow up to be responsible fathers, so they seize a late opportunity to do so. (Gustave and Zero are a master and servant in a sort of father/son love story, the Master seeing his missed potential in the servant, the servant learning to admire and respect his flawed master.)
  • Men behaving outlandishly in order to taste something of youthful adventure again.
  • Men taking expensive risks to regain a moment of childlike wonder.

And, like most of them, it involves a beautiful and crazy dream — a dream of a structure, whether that be a family structure, a life of seafaring exploration, or an everlasting high school, that is doomed by the folly of humankind, whether that be divorce or, in this case, war. But wasn’t it a magnificent dream? “It’s an institution,” says a character of the Grand Budapest Hotel, and you can take that line however you want it.

But I couldn’t stop thinking, all the way through, that this feels like The Confessions of Wes Anderson the Filmmaker.

After all, every time Anderson makes a movie, he wants to construct a certain kind of thing — a personal, elaborate expression of what he loves and values most in the world. But the world is moving too fast for a dreamer like him. And forces beyond his control make it unlikely that his dream will last. I get a sense that he feels the pangs of compromise, which most filmmakers must learn to live with — the path to the big screen is fraught with devilish deal-making. I suspect that he knows what it’s like to endear himself to old rich folks along the way in order to get what he wants. But somehow, through an elaborate strategy of risks, conspiracies, theft, and bravado, he’s done it — some semblance of his original, glorious vision is still standing at the end.

I suspect that most filmmakers — most successful artists, really — find themselves nostalgic for a time when they were free to be creative without getting their hands dirty. I suspect they find a fondness for up and coming artists who remind them of their lost naiveté and “innocence.” I suspect that they hope others will follow in their footsteps, like Zero following Gustave, to keep their favorite kind of architecture alive into the next age of filmmaking.

Does it have any of those Andersonian lines that ring out like a bell, making everything in the movie resonate?

Yes. You’ll find them quoted in other reviews. Best to experience them in the movie before you read them somewhere else. But there’s a line about “sustaining an illusion” that really rang out for me on this viewing. Next time, it’ll be something else.

Lo… Bill Murray in a Wes Anderson film! Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Yes. Ralph Fiennes shines — forgive the rhyme — as one of Anderson’s strangest, most interesting characters. (But yes, that’s a highly subjective claim, and you may not agree.)

F. Murray Abraham gives the juiciest performance I’ve seen from him since Amadeus in the mid-80s.

Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody get to be hilarious.

Jeff Goldbum dials down his usual idiosyncrasies to create a solid character.

Saoirse Ronan is radiant and adorable, seemingly somehow just as young as she was in Atonement.

And there’s a flurry of laughable cameos late in the film, but I won’t spoil them. I think my favorite character on this trip through the film was Harvey Keitel’s level-headed prison thug.

Seems like every critic is finding references to different films in Grand Budapest. Did it remind you of anything?

I’ve read those reviews, and there’s no mistaking that this film is a wonderland of cinematic allusions, enough to make a cinephile teary-eyed with joy. Glenn Kenny says, in his review, “The references are multitudinous, and come from everywhere.” His favorite is a reference to Night Train To Munich.

But the film I thought about most, strangely enough, was one I haven’t yet seen mentioned in other reviews: James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day.

Both films are about a man who, applying his attention to the meticulous work of sustaining an intricate and extraordinary architecture, loses opportunities for real love, real family, real meaning in his life. Worse, the all-consuming nature of the work keeps him isolated from tremendous changes at work in the world… until, inevitably, they overtake his ambitious endeavors and bring an end to a glorious, if imperfect, dream. An age passes. But look back, and oh… the architecture!

Still, you shouldn’t take the comparison too far. Remains of the Day is a meditative, buttoned-up Merchant/Ivory picture. Grand Budapest moves at a frenzied pace not unlike that of The Hudsucker Proxy or Raising Arizona.

Are there any warnings you want to give the audience?

There’s more behavior of the R-rated sort than usual, so take note of that if you’re offended by paintings of sexual misbehavior, or by glimpses of assassins doing what assassins do or violence. If you’re a dog person, then Moonrise Kingdom was probably a painful experience for you. This time, it’s cat people who will be wounded.

But, in accordance with the Anderson code, nothing is gratuitous. There are meaningful reasons for all of his creative choices, from the style of camerawork to the exaggerated colors.

Does anything stand out as distinct from other Anderson films?

The soundtrack is something new for Anderson — a lavish, classical score by Alexandre Desplat characterized by highly danceable Eastern European folk music. Much has already been made of the film’s multiple aspect ratios, which prevents confusion during a dizzying plunge through multiple levels of storytelling and memory.

Are you willing to call it “the most” anything of Anderson movies? 

Well, I suppose it’s easy to call it “the most ambitious” because this is the first Anderson movie to imagine an entirely fictional country — the Republic of Zubrowka. I suspect that very few will argue with this: It’s the most complicated, and extravagantly decorated, Anderson film. But I didn’t find that to distract me. Every scene was like a spectacular frosted pastry with a sharp object baked into the middle of it.

But no… I’ve learned not to make grandiose claims about Anderson’s films, especially after only one viewing. I can’t say that this one was particularly moving for me at first look — but I was so busy delighting in its breathtaking aesthetic complexity that I suspect the story will work its magic on me in later viewings. That’s what happened with The Life Aquatic.

But I’m aghast at one review in particular that heralded The Grand Budapest Hotel as the first Anderson film to qualify as “engaging” or “delightful.” Reviews like those only show us how important it is that a critic admit that they’re speaking for themselves, but not for others. Because I could fill huge theaters with moviegoers who have yet to see an Anderson film that isn’t “engaging” or “delightful.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a presentation by Matt Zoller Seitz, editor of RogerEbert.com and author of a beautiful new coffee-table book called The Wes Anderson Collection. 

The Wes Anderson Collection: A coffee table book big enough to be a coffee table.

Seitz presented excerpts from his video essays on the work of Wes Anderson, and a crowd of appreciative moviegoers nodded in smiling enthusiasm as he talked about how Anderson’s films evoke a curious, often overpowering, sense of longing for the restoration of innocence.

It was a beautiful gathering.

So… to anyone who claims that this is the first Anderson movie to “tell a real story,” to deliver “emotional satisfaction,” to involve flesh-and-blood characters, to tap into anything deeply meaningful, to appeal to a general audience, I say… “Well, that’s, like, your opinion, man.”

And with that, I turn and rejoin the ever-expanding community of people who feel that we are blessed to be moviegoers in the age of Wes Anderson, whose films are so rich that they make most American movies feel like two hours of impoverished imagination.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Neil Pu

    The Grand Budapest Hotel is basically a beautiful cake.

  • Christopher Williams

    Wes Anderson took awhile to grow on me, but in hindsight I think it’s because I was just starting to learn about cinema as an art form when he was coming on the scene — I had a very strong negative reaction to Rushmore, and I still have to go back and re-visit it. But in time I’ve come to look forward to his films so much; I think my initial issue was his visual aesthetic — it’s so unlike what we see in movies, and at times it feels like quirk for quirkiness’ sake. But I think he’s been on quite a roll lately, and I found “Grand Budapest Hotel” to be an utter pleasure — I don’t think it’s “The most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson film,” but I do think it’s the one where his story and aesthetic are most perfectly calibrated. It’s just a joy to watch and an even greater joy to think about later (I think it’s his “best” film, although “Moonrise Kingdom” is probably my favorite right now).

    But I think a key to this might be that it’s a movie where the visual aesthetic is integral to the story, and it might go a long way to explaining Anderson’s approach for those who struggle with it. It’s about nostalgia, about wistfully re-creating a time and place that brought us joy — which is what Anderson does with his films. And the storybook look is explained by having this story literally be one told from a book. For me, at least, that helped me fully embrace the film without wrestling with Anderson’s usual quirks. And there’s that moment at the end with Zero where the emotion is just so powerfully, subtly delivered. Out of nowhere, I felt kicked in the gut. Wonderful film — the first great one I’ve seen in 2014.

  • goldushapple

    I admit, I did not like the movie as much as others. I am more like Moviegoer #2. I will see it again, though.


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