Film Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel
In the connection between history and understanding is memory. Stories are predicated on memory between time and place. It is in this space where interpretation comes from. Information about somewhere and some-when informs our imagination, which in turn creates a memory of something we were never a part of, or never knew. So when The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a succession of scenes surrounding an author and the book bearing the movie’s name, writer/director Wes Anderson is working to establish an acknowledgement with the audience that he is going to be placing us in the space of interpretation, between history and understanding. A place where memory trumps fact.
We open on a girl in front of a statue of The Author, a character played by both Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson. She holds in her hands a copy of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel, which she sits down on a bench to read. We are then introduced to the Author as played by Wilkinson, who is recording the story of his memory of how he came to meet Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Grand Budapest. As we cut to the flashback that is the movie, a child holds us hostage with a cap gun, aimed directly at our collective heads. We are prisoners to the story of memory just as much as the characters we are about to get acquainted with.
For most of its running time, the story centers around Zero (Tony Revolori), a newly hired bellhop at the Grand Budapest, and a series of misadventures he finds himself in alongside the hotel’s maitre d, M. Gusatve (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave, played with exuberant flair by Fiennes in top charismatic form, has an obsession with older women. A fetish obviously carried over from Anderson’s love of Harold and Maude that puts him in a position of compromise when one of his lovers turns up dead. With Zero at his side, Gustave sets out to avoid arrest and uncover whatever conspiracy is aiming to pin the murder on him.
Anderson’s films have always been a part of an almost fantasy world. A self-contained environment that’s just enough removed from our reality in such a way that it compares to Nabakov’s novel Ada in its approach to examining our existence from a place of detached familiarity. Each movie Anderson makes becomes more a part of the diegesis of this almost fantasy land, and with each further descent into fantasy there’s an equaled exploration of what is real outside of that fantasy. With Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson used Roald Dahl’s world of foxes and farmers to explore hubris, coming of age, and our connection the world’s food system. In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson sought to explore familial connections amidst adolescents and a search for belonging. In Budapest Anderson takes a varied and brave step in a mature direction away from coming of age, and family dissidents.
There’s been a lot of talk about Budapest being Anderson’s most “Andersony” film, but for all it’s use of familiar cinematic grammar, there’s an exploration of interpretation through memory of history that pushes things away from ground we’ve tread with Anderson over before. Gone is Anderson’s obsession with geometric space, while the environment remains a frame for our picture to exist in, it is a construct that exist because it is there, not because attention is drawn specifically to it. Also missing are pop songs of characterized weight that assist in our trip through an Anderson world. Instead, Alexander Desplat creates a lush score that encapsulates a specific moment in a specific place that never existed. While the metatextual existence of an author, a reader, and an audience may signal Anderson addressing his critics by saying this is who I am, these are my films, it makes much more sense that these things are commentary on our connection to memory of history. As a fascist regime sets in to the fictional country of Zubrowka, images recall Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Army of Shadows, about the French resistance during World War II.
As with all of Anderson’s movies, there is a sense of melancholy that permeates through the textures and colors of the screen. With an all-star cast of Hollywood players and Anderson regulars, it may seem safe, but this is dark territory we’re treading down. Billed as a comedy, but far more tragic in its residual effect once the credits have stopped rolling. Unfortunately the emotional weight of the dramatic tension that supports Anderson’s earlier films, especially The Royal Tenenbaums, is toned down. This leaves us with more obsessive attention to details in the images of each shot, and a pacing that suggests immediacy is its own dramatic tension. With a helping hand of humor, a surprise amount of violence, and a sincere nostalgia for the works of Stefan Zweig, whose writings the movie is based on, there is a densely layered impression of how memory informs history, and how humor helps us deal with that, on display. All of which makes for one of Anderson’s most interesting and compelling films.