The newest film from Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t offer more of the same, but is rather the next step in the exacting filmmaker’s increasingly mature oeuvre. In some ways, the film is a culmination of his career to this point. Under the roof of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s signature themes, actors, and aesthetics are deftly woven into this film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is structured as a narrative matryoshka doll, with four stories nested inside each other. Each has its own distinct aspect ratio, (the film becomes more square the farther back it goes), decor, and actors, and the central plot is itself divided into segments, reinforcing the precise structure of the story. The film opens on a girl reading a book about the titular hotel, then moves to the author of the book (Tom Wilkinson), then flashes back to the author as a younger man (Jude Law) at the Hotel, being told the story of the original concierge, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) by the current owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).
That deepest layer is the meat of the film, taking place at the Hotel, which is in a fictionalized alpine European country during the interwar years. The impending death of refined civilization and the rise of fascism play an increasingly pointed part of the tale, underlining all of the dramatic tension in the film. Due to its structure and scale, The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly the most complex of Anderson’s films so far, and the most ambitious. A caper placed against the backdrop of Central Europe, it naturally allows for sweeping storytelling and majestic locales.
The film is anchored by Ralph Fiennes, a newcomer to Anderson’s troupe. He fits in marvelously, and his grace and poise is uniquely suited to the character of Gustave H. I would also be remiss to not mention Tony Revolori, giving an excellent performance in his first screen role as the young lobby boy, Zero.
As expected, perhaps, Anderson brings in familiar faces to aid in telling the tale, and part of the fun is waiting for them to show up in places both expected and unexpected. Chief among them are Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum, both returning from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (though Dafoe did provide a voice for Fantastic Mr. Fox). Anderson leverages Dafoe’s screen presence like no other director, and Goldblum is surprisingly well-suited to Anderson’s dialogue.
One unique aspect of the film is that all of the actors (as far as I am aware) use their native accents in portraying their characters. While I imagine it is easier for them to deliver the fast-paced dialogue in the film, it also carries a deeper thematic meaning. The early 20th century was a frothy mix of nationalism, fascism, and socialism, which caused a drastic upheaval of the social order, as well as the erection of new barriers.
The Hotel serves as the nexus of these characters, seemingly all misfits of disparate backgrounds, whether refugees from foreign lands, world travelers, escapees from routine or hiding in their fixation on nostalgia. Hotels are the crossroads of the world, and the crossing of lines encourages the undermining of those forces that seek to confine people to their respective groups. At a hotel, the working class interacts with the upper class, strangers become friends, and everyone is united in trying to escape from something back home. Stepping from the present, backward into the interwar period is a forceful reminder that although it feels distant to us, the ripples of war, atrocity, and modernistic progress echo ever forward in time.
What makes The Grand Budapest Hotel feel so effortless is that the film shows us all of this without ever telling us. It’s easy to be pulled into the charismatic embrace of Gustave H., and the “just so” construction of the visuals, swept along in this romp through a whimsical alternate world and forget the darkness that lies just underneath the surface. To do so is certainly a joyous experience, but it does a slight disservice to all that Wes Anderson has achieved in what is his most accomplished film to date.
Those who have dismissed Anderson as a ‘twee(d) auteur’ in the past may want the opportunity to reevaluate that opinion and not get caught up in the delicate surface trappings which they evidently find so distasteful. The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally suited both to those looking for a fun, whimsical caper, or a meaningful discourse on what it means to be civilized.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens today in Philly area theaters.