The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is Wes Anderson‘s most pastel film to date and, as far as I’m aware, the most violent. However, apart from its sudden and dramatic use of violence, nudity, and swearing, The Grand Budapest Hotel has the same charming darkness Anderson usually provides. The film tells one story masquerading as three. First, we meet an author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, who tells the story of his younger self (Jude Law) in the 1960s, who had met the old man Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells the story of his younger self (Tony Revolori) in 1932. Zero Moustafa began his illustrious journey as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel under the guidance of M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the finest concierge of his (or any other) day. M. Gustave attracted a legion of old, rich, blonde women who would dote on (him among other things). This leads to a tricky situation with a painting, made trickier by familiar political events, and a fair amount of hithering and thithering.
If Woody Allen‘s dialogue can sometimes wander into the woods of peculiar word choices and allusions, then Wes Anderson lives there in permanent residence. Not all actors, perhaps very few, can swallow and distribute his long and intricate sentences while retaining or conveying their meaning, let alone their significance. Fiennes is undoubtedly one of them. It is a good pairing. But it will not bring in all viewers. If you have a problem with Wes Anderson’s other films, this will not be the entry point. The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel (devised with Hugo Guinness) is unique for Anderson in ways I will describe, but the tone and production design (Adam Stockhausen) are unmistakable and (perhaps fatally) Anderson’s. If you are a fan already, then you don’t need me. You will love it.
If I were to use one word to describe Anderson, though I believe I’ve used far more already, it would be “detailed”. Anderson brings little phrases into his films that one might see in a novel. They may mean something, but more likely they only exist to embellish the characters or the world around them. Something like a business card with a bit of information on it that, if you’re quick enough to spot it, might give you a giggle. All of the dialogue is precise and, it appears, thoroughly rehearsed to enunciate each word. In the mouth of Ralph Fiennes, the words take on their own life and enhance the character. In the mouth of Bill Murray or Edward Norton, they wallow oddly in my ears. Those actors have to rely on the oddness of their appearance for laughs. Willem Dafoe as the ruthless thug Jopling has nothing to say at all, I believe, but almost steals the show.
What is best about Dafoe’s character is how very different it is from other Wes Anderson characters. Equally, the strength of this film–for a lukewarm supporter of Anderson like myself–lies in its allusiveness. It alludes not only to other films, as you might find in the work of those who seem not to know anything else, but to poetry, art, and history. Especially history, this film is a brilliant allusion to history. And here, the detail is impeccable or, if that gives me too much credit, evocative. We get Nazis and Soviets, Hungary and India, all with their particular plot points and artistic design. It also evoked the crime or espionage thrillers from the 1940’s like Ministry of Fear (1944) or The Third Man (1949) while remaining distinctly modern.
For my part, this modernity was a weakness of the film. From the trailer–which I beg you not to watch if you wish to fully enjoy this movie on the first viewing, as it undercuts at least three scenes by giving the punchline–I expected a full pastiche of these old films. While some will gloriously refrain “while remaining true to his own voice”, I would say “unable to dampen his own bright color”. Anderson’s love of pink does empty some of the menace of a chase scene or the fear of a gunfight. Anderson used the phrase “the war began at midnight”, which alludes to a favorite film of mine The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), but it is a misquote (the “war starts at midnight”) and entirely misses the meaning behind Powell-Pressburger’s irony. But that’s appropriate since it represents the way I felt about the movie.
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