Near the end of Wes Anderson’s utterly delightful and predictably twee The Grand Budapest Hotel, one of the film’s many interlocking narrators, played by F. Murray Abraham, describes the protagonist M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) as being born long after “his world” was long dead, and yet still possessed of the integrity to continue to live in that world. That sentiment may possibly be used to describe the protagonists in all of Wes Anderson’s movies. Not a single character in Anderson’s films (with the possible exception of Royal Tenenbaum) seems to live an earthy, natural life. These are people (and in some cases, animals) who live their lives entirely by affect. They affect speech, clothing, a personal aesthetic, an entire lifestyle in tribute to an ultra-clean version of the recent past that is most certainly dead. The sweetness in Anderson’s films come from those rare connections his protagonists have with outsiders that they are able to bring into their lovely, dead, affected worlds. There is no compromise. The protagonists do not seek a middle ground. They always bring people over to their way of thinking.
I feel that Anderson was grappling with his own affected aesthetics for many years, and finally hit his stride as a filmmaker when he allowed himself to be as twee as he wants to be. As such, I feel that Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his last two features, have been his best work, besting the relatively emotional (but still no less deliberately anti-dynamic) romances that he has become known for. The Grand Budapest Hotel – which might be described as Anderson’s spoof of Agatha Christie novels – is not as good as Moonrise Kingdom, but it is still a gloriously mannered, Almond Roca-colored playground full of recognizably anachronistic glories of the heart. In an age dominated by pop culture nostalgia, Wes Anderson has the courage to depict universes constructed of a deliberately un-hip tribute.
Ralph Fiennes gives one of his better and certainly one of his most energetic performances as Gustave H., the hard-working, heavily-perfumed concierge of a remote luxury hotel located somewhere deep inside an imaginary Eastern European nation just before “The War.” Gustave’s life is being narrated by F. Murray Abraham, whose own tale is – in turn – being narrated by a biographer (Jude Law) in the 1960s. And, what’s more, that story is being read by a student who is standing at the elderly Jude Law’s grave. So we have several layers of exaggeration to contend with. On screen, Gustave is an irrepressible dandy who gladly seduces the elderly dowagers who come to stay at the hotel. Gustave has taken under his wing an ambitious Egyptian lobby boy named Zero (first-timer Tony Revolori), and Zero is eager to learn the impeccably perfect and utterly poetic ambition Gustave offers to the world. The plot revolves around the death of one of Gustave’s lovers (Tilda Swinton in age makeup) and the ensuing inheritance rigamarole involving her embittered family (represented by Adrien Brody), the local cops (represented by Edward Norton), and too many other recognizable Anderson regulars to mention.
The plot itself seems largely unbound, moving this way and that, never really coming to a head. But then, that has always been another aspect of the director’s milieu. But whereas many of his early films felt a little rough around the edges, The Grand Budapest Hotel – with its shifting aspect ratios, creamy photography, and oh-so-careful 90-degree camera swivels – feels impeccable. And as such, it’s much easier to be lost in the rifle-shot comedy of the broad situations. It’s a slick, smooth confection, as appealing as the piled-high cakes featured so prominently by Saoirse Ronan’s baker. He seems to have made a film that feels like The Marx Brothers were spoofing Doctor Zhivago but didn’t bother to cast themselves.
Some may find Anderson’s antics to be too mannered, resulting in a sort of emotional distance. I encourage viewers to look at his films as subtle character satires. He makes people we are encouraged to simultaneously laugh at and with. And that’s no small feat.