Wes Anderson is a film maker I took a while to warm up to. The first of his films I tried, Rushmore, left me more perplexed than anything else, and though I currently regard The Life Aquatic with the kind of affection that normally warrants a restraining order, upon first viewing my attentions would only have warranted a change of address and a sturdy lock. It took until The Fantastic Mr Fox for me to really catch on and fall into the same Anderson mania felt by most trendy young film nerds, and while I greatly enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom, Mr Fox has always seemed like the be-all, end all.
Until The Grand Budapest Hotel, that is. Oh, I thought I knew what words like “charming” and “delightful” and “enchanting” meant in an Anderson film, innocent little yearling lamb I was. I thought I had seen the apex of his ability to grab the cockles of my heart and shake them like one of those handwarmers full of metal filings that never seems to work, reducing me to a state of blissful euphoria only otherwise found in first time opium users. I didn’t know shit, son.
The Grand Budapest Hotel follows the adventures of Gustave H, concierge at the luxuriant hotel of the title, located in a fictional European country. After being named as the inheritor of a priceless painting by a wealthy dowager, Gustave is accused of her murder and only ally is his loyal lobby boy Zero, whose older self is recounting the tale to a young writer played by Jude Law in a framing story. But the framing story has a framing story itself, as we are being recounted the recounting of the story by the older version of the writer, played by Tom Wilkinson, and even THAT has a frame, since the whole shebang is being read by a girl in a cemetery in what is presumably present day. The film has the structure of a Russian nesting doll, or perhaps the final mecha from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann for all you anime nerds.
And in case Anderson hadn’t done enough to ingratiate himself to film nerds the world over by filming his last movie entirely on Super 16mm film, each time period in Grand Budapest is filmed in a different aspect ratio (the width of the frame in relation to its height) with most of the action being presented in the “Academy Ratio” of a more or less perfectly square image. Everything is boxes within boxes within boxes, and the fact that there’s a recurring motif of framing characters within even smaller boxes in the frame (windows, etc), pushes this even further, and off a cliff into a tank full of excited film nerds having loud orgasms.
Grand Budapest, with its themes of looking back, recollection and storytelling, and obsession with obsolete frame shapes, is Anderson’s most overpoweringly nostalgic film yet, and I want you to take a moment and think about the implications of that sentence. The past, or at least a rose-colored, sentimentalized version of the past, is recreated with incredible amounts of care and detail. I said this about Moonrise Kingdom, but it’s even more true that Grand Budapest is in many ways just as much a work of animation as Fantastic Mr Fox, stylizing the image and going to absurd lengths in terms of costuming, set design and overall mise-en-scene to present an image so polished and prepared that anything approaching a realist aesthetic can only be communicated with by notes smuggled inside a long range interplanetary rocket.
But what surprised me, and I think it will surprise a lot of people, is the sucker punch the film pulls literally in the last few minutes, suddenly bursting from the pool of nostalgia like Jason Voorhees at the end of the first Friday the 13th to grab the viewer and offer an anti-nostalgic blow that ends the film on a shockingly somber note. But I don’t think that’s to say the film is entirely anti-nostalgic, I mean, this is Wes Anderson after all. But the film, in the last few minutes, reveals itself to be something other than just a brightly colored confection of nostalgia and fun, one that does have something to say about the dangers of becoming mired in the past.
But for the rest of its runtime, the film is, with a purity and concentration only otherwise found in industrial chemicals, fun. Ralph Fiennes, in the role of Gustave H, is a comedic powerhouse, an Incredible Hulk of witty jabs and wry wit. Newcomer Tony Revolori is the perfect foil, a wide-eyed straight man who plays off Fiennes’ quiet absurdity beautifully. The expansive supporting cast all shine in one regard or another, Willem Dafoe plays the soul of all scowling goons like he was born for it, and F. Murray Abraham nails the quiet melancholy of the older Zero.
There’s only one joke that falls even close to flat, an extended exchange between Gustave and Zero shortly after a daring prison escape that feels like an extended improv session allowed to go on too long.
It revels in almost anachronistic adventure, weaving plots around stolen artwork and needlessly complex wills, filling its running time with chase scenes on snowy alpine peaks and old-school prison escapes involving digging tools smuggled inside baked goods and improvised rope ladders. But over the whole thing looms the specter of World War 2, barely disguised Nazi officers stop trains and newspapers warn of tanks at the border, never letting us forget that it is showing us a world that will soon no longer exist.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an immensely entertaining film, one that reveals itself in its closing moments to have more teeth than you may expect. It’s a film about nostalgia, one not afraid to show its dangers while wallowing in its excesses. I cannot recommend it more.