In my review of Wes Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, I speculated that “Perhaps Anderson’s obsessions are gradually coming into align with my own over time, or vice versa,” and The Grand Budapest Hotel is more evidence of this. I do think with his last three films he’s really hit his stride. Maybe adapting somebody else’s work (Roald Dahl in The Fantastic Mr Fox) gave him a new perspective. His characters seem more sympathetic now. They’re still damaged goods, still — as with Gustave H. in this one — narcissistic, but perhaps Anderson is more forgiving of their failures, more observant of their triumphs.
His perspective has broadened throughout his career, encompassing more and more of the world, including the past. Moonrise Kingdom was his first period piece, and The Grand Budapest Hotel heads back even further into the past. However, it does it in stages, and one of the signs of Anderson’s growing sophistication is that he has now added narrative frames-within-frames to the the visual frames-within-frames he’s always been famous for. In fact, I don’t feel I completely understood the narrative frames. We open with a woman visiting a cemetery, where she visits a tombstone with a bust. We then cut to 1985 and the face of the man whom the bust memorialized. He begins to tell a story about something that happened to him in the Grand Budapest Hotel in the ’60s, and within that story he’s told a story about the old hotel concierge, Gustave H, and what happened to him in 1932. Who is the woman in the opening sequence? We see her again at the end of the movie, but I missed any clues as to her identity. Ah well, just another reason to see this one again!
There’s an added layer of complexity to the visual frames as well. Michael Chabon has observed, regarding the frequent comparisons between Anderson’s internal frames and Cornell boxes, that the important thing about a Cornell box is the box itself. “The box sets out the scale of a ratio,” says Chabon, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson plays with the ratio of the frame of the entire picture, which changes with each narrative frame and matches the standard ratio for films of the era the sequence is set in, starting widescreen and ultimately arriving at the old 4:3 Academy Ratio for the sequences set in 1932. So Anderson has built a little film history into his visual scheme, which creates some new compositional challenges and opportunities for him as well. The boxier, taller 4:3 ratio is, amongst other things, very appropriate for a film set in the mountains and seeking to emphasize height and verticality.
1932, by the way, was the greatest year in Hollywood, and the fact that Anderson set his main story in that year had me (in my obsessive way) looking for similarities to the films of that era beyond the aspect ratio. The imaginary Middle European setting and Continental attitude toward sex reminded me constantly of Ernst Lubitsch’s Pre-Code operettas (One Hour with You was made in 1932), while the farcical, not to mention lascivious, nature of the hijinks reminded me of the Marx Brothers’ parodies of Lubitsch (okay, fine, Duck Soup was actually 1933). Thus Anderson gives us Maurice Chevalier as a charming gigolo (Ralph Fiennes) to Margaret Dumont’s doddering dowager (Tilda Swinton). But Anderson’s allegiance with Lubitsch runs even deeper, as he merges the frothy romantic comedy with the kind of black humor about fascism that Lubitsch pioneered in To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Indeed, there’s a strain of savage (if also slapstick) violence in The Grand Hotel Budapest that seems fairly new to Anderson as well, although there were hints of it in Moonrise Kingdom. There’s also a continuation of the action-adventure elements from the last two films, but still run through that Marx Brothers wringer (especially the ski/sled chase that diverts into a loopy Winter Games course, and the victimless shootout at the end). Has he ever created a villain as nasty or scary as Willem Dafoe’s Jopling? The comedy-cruelty almost seems Coenesque at times.
Not that everything works equally well in this film. A few gags seem strained (e.g., “Don’t flirt with her”), and a few of the large, jostling cast of characters seem underdeveloped (e.g., Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha). Yet what holds it all together is the character at the center of all the frames, Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, who is both a shameless gigolo and a fundamentally decent man. Again and again, his kindness and gentility (and attention to detail) are rewarded against all odds, and he shows true courage in the face of fascism. He is a hero, and whatever ironies Anderson weaves around the character, it does not diminish the heroism. In the past Anderson seemed to despair at the cruelty of his fellow humans, even as he found black humor in it. Now he seems to be recognizing the importance of at least trying to counter the cruelty with acts of decency.
Well, The Grand Budapest is a lot to absorb. More visits are called for.