“You can tell they had a low budget; all the backgrounds were painted.”
That quote comes courtesy of one of the shining beacons of taste I went with to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was my second viewing, and in fairness the majority of people I went with were awesome and totally got what Wes Anderson was doing. For the uninitiated, and there can’t be many of you at this point, Wes Anderson crafts delightfully false films. They’re filled with fascinating hand crafted minutiae, deliberately stiff performances, planimetric camera angles, and forlorn emotional cores (and yes, matte painting, which has got to cost more than digital compositing in this day and age). Once a director who seemingly only appealed to those with a patrician’s taste (you know an article is going to be good when I’m already referencing private jokes from 4Chan’s Music Board), he’s recently enjoyed more mainstream success than ever before. The Grand Budapest Hotel was his most poplar movie yet.
Time to out myself as a slight casual when it comes to Anderson – I’ve only seen the films in his oeuvre frequently labelled his more successful. No pretentious patrician’s choice for favourite is available to me. I’ve seen only The Royal Tennenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Just about everyone says that Anderson’s films really grow on you after multiple viewings, but the only one I’d seen multiple times was Fantastic Mr. Fox. So when the opportunity arose to see The Grand Budapest a second time I leapt at it.
The film is fast moving and complex. It’s filled with murder, schemes, romance, prison breaks, cat-murder, heavy metal doors, chocolate deserts, art theft, and a healthy dose of quirk. It takes place over four different time periods and revolves around the titular hotel. It stars Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave and Tony Revolori as Zero. It also features Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Almaric, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Edward Norton, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton. So yeah, decent cast.
Anderson’s movies require a certain kind of stiff performance. His characters hide their emotions beneath a wooden façade, and it takes a certain kind of actor to still make the character compelling, and to sell the inevitable chinks in their emotional armour. Fiennes knocks it out of the park. Tony Revolori, who was discovered by Anderson, is also pretty great. The supporting cast features a lot of repeat players, all of who are great. Those actors who are new to Anderson’s films? Also great! So much greatness!
It’s an overwhelming film on a first viewing. There’s just an insane amount of information on the screen. Take for instance the few noir-ish shots of Willem Dafoe’s hands on his desk – it wasn’t until my second viewing I noticed the desk had gained a set of jarred fingers between scenes. Every single detail in the film is composed, designed, and worth taking in. From boxes to keys to suits to prison shanks, there’s an absolute flood of information in every corner of the screen. It’s incredibly fun to pay more attention to these things the second time around. What really serves as a testament to this film is the fact that my mental catalogue of “quirky details” completely fell by the wayside for me as I was caught up by the characters and the story.
The core of the movie connected with me a lot more on the second viewing. Beats that were effective the first time became far more powerful. Gustave’s repeated attempts to recite poetry was, somehow, both funnier and sadder the second time. Zero’s final admission to The Author fell into the same camp; it was sad the first time, but it was SAD the second time. Likewise Gustave’s cracked persona post-imprisonment felt more earned. (It’s completely borne of character, so it never felt unearned per say. I think it’s more indicative of the speed of this movie more than anything else.)
I was curious to see if the film’s few surprises would hold up the second time around. There aren’t any real plot twists or anything like that (good god I’m tired of the phrase “plot twist”, it’s starting to feel impossible to write an article without using it (grumble grumble internet)) but there are a few, mainly visual, beats that rather shook up both the theatres I sat in. It’s Wes Anderson’s most violent movie yet, if that helps you parse out what sort of things I’m referring to. These scenes certainly weren’t out-of-the-blue the second time around, but the harsh contrast to the rest of the film’s tone and style meant they were still delightfully jarring. It helps that the first one is a rather unusual piece of violence, regardless of the film.
And speaking of the scene in the museum did anyone else wonder if it was a No Country for Old Men reference? Not the entire scene, of course, just the way Willem Dafoe’s character removes his boots before getting down and murderous. Anton Chigurh does this throughout No Country for Old Men, until the motif can be repeated as a visual shorthand letting the audience know what’s happened off-screen. Now apparently Wes Anderson will often talk about his intents for individual scenes through movie references. This is obviously common among filmmakers; it’s easier to call on shared knowledge of film as communicative shorthand than it is to describe what you intend from the ground up. But some of these descriptions make Wes Anderson’s references sound like a little more than a shared language summoned up for speed, though admittedly it’s hard to tell. It’s such a striking part of No Country for Old Men, and such a subtle and unimportant part of Grand Budapest Hotel, that I can’t help but see it as a possibility.
It’s easy to see why more audience members are connecting with Grand Budapest Hotel than they have with past Wes Anderson films. It’s propulsive and fun in a fairly accessible way. It might be more saturated in Anderson’s visual style than his past films, but it’s also very funny, has some scenes that could nominally be referred to as action, and hits a weird cross-section where it could conceivably both attract a young hipster audience (I know hipster as a term means nothing anymore, shut up and leave me alone) and an older audience (Anderson seems fascinated with aging, and this film is no different). Obviously there are still people out there unable to get past the style (see the first line of this spiel) but we don’t really want them in our club do we? Well okay, it’s actually wonderful to see as unique a director as Anderson captivate a wider audience. This is firmly a good thing.
If there’s one thing I missed about The Grand Budapest Hotel it was the soundtrack. I’ve listened to more Wes Anderson soundtracks than I’ve seen Wes Anderson movies. In the past he’s taken a wonderfully Kubrickian route with his soundtracks. (Kubrick was firmly against composing original soundtracks. Now obviously that’s a terrible rule to apply across the board, then we’d loose our Ennio Morricones, Hans Zimmers, and John Williamses, but the directors who follow this kind of rule sometimes create awe inspiring soundtracks. Think of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Edgar Wright.) Anderson has crafted delightful albums filled with French Bowie covers, Kinks songs, and the odd punky song. The music in Grand Budapest Hotel is utterly effective, and I’m glad to see Anderson try something new, but I can only remember a single musical beat from the film.
Both times I went the audience seemed to respond well. Half the people I prompted for opinions the second time had the exact same thing to say, “It was very symmetrical.” Tangible details much? The theatre was clearly into it, laughing knowingly when Bill Murray appeared (which was actually annoying, but whatever), gasping at the bits of violence, chuckling at Gustave’s poetry. It was a pretty nice theatre going experience. Served as a lovely contrast to the Winter Soldier, during which some kid kept screaming, “That’s the Fantastic Four!” Eventually he realized it was Captain America, but then he kept telling us all that choice piece of information. But I digress…
The Grand Budapest Hotel is not my favourite Wes Anderson film. It seems to be jumping to the top of a lot of critic’s lists. If you’ll recall I still need to see more Anderson, and see Anderson films more times, to make a fair judgment. However on a purely personal level The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie I can always, always watch, marking it a personal favourite, even if it wouldn’t be my pick for best. Best? Maybe Moonrise Kingdom. I connected with the emotional core of Moonrise Kingdom more than any other film of his I’ve seen, even if I’ve only seen it once. Of course I feel I desperately need to rewatch The Royal Tennenbaums, certain images from which have absolutely stayed with me. God I swear I started this paragraph with a more decisive mindset…
I guess his films are just that good.