by Tony Dayoub
Unless you're one of the multitude of Wes Anderson detractors—I lump these in with critics of directors like Tim Burton, the Coens and other filmmakers who mistake their unique, oddball aesthetics, clarity of vision, and consistency for laziness and a failure to evolve—then you probably subscribe to the idea that there are no bad Anderson films, just lesser ones. (This was sort of my answer to a recent poll inquiring about the best/worst Anderson films.) In fact, though I'm partial to The Royal Tenenbaums myself, The Grand Budapest Hotel might possibly be even better than that. It will take some time to fully grasp whether that's really the case or not. But it's really an argument of degrees, isn't it? This is to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a refinement of what Wes Anderson has always focused on in his films.
In Budapest, Anderson incorporates a chronological structure new to his work, one of multiple timelines in which flashbacks nest within flashbacks. It's a technique which further allies his work with the literary tradition. Tenenbaums was the first of his films to distinctly recall the flavor of a children's storybook, a way of softening some of the harsher themes of family dysfunction and parental abandonment explored in that film. A film like Fantastic Mr. Fox certainly continues in the same vein. Budapest does so with the subject of the decline of Eastern Europe by examining the fictional former Republic of Zubrowka just before World War I.
Zubrowka is the home of the titular resort, efficiently managed by one M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a well-bred, omnisexual head concierge with a proclivity for wealthy, elderly blond women. When one of his lovers, 84-year-old dowager countess Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis a.k.a. Madame D (Tilda Swinton), is found murdered, M. Gustave H. must enlist the help of his rookie lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori). Together they must prove M. Gustave H.'s innocence while staying one step ahead of the authorities—led by Capt. Henckels (Edward Norton)—and the likely culprits—Madame D.'s villainous son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe).
The hotel is depicted using a combination of lo-fi visual effects like matte paintings and miniatures, preserving the same make-believe feel of Anderson's most recent features, Moonrise Kingdom and the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox. Like in those films (and probably all of Anderson's oeuvre), M. Gustave H. is a protagonist suffering from a form of arrested development. In Budapest, it takes the shape of a kind of denial that many Eastern Europeans suffered just before the onslaught of war. M. Gustave H. runs the Grand Budapest Hotel as if it were some sort of bulwark against the impending barbarity that will eventually annihilate the more civilized cultural aspects of Eastern Europe under the bootheel of war. So it is perfectly represented onscreen as a sort of fairy-tale idyll. Fiennes tempers some of the sillier aspects of the character—his propensity to refer to even the roughest of men as "darling," his tendency to read novella-length poems of inspiration to his staff at their meal times—with a laudable humaneness. As he acknowledges himself, he chooses to dwell on the "faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse we once called humanity."
But there is undeniably an undercurrent of brutality running throughout Budapest. Here and there, we get darker intimations regarding the fate of many of its characters, mainly from the film's narrator, a now elderly Zero played by F. Murray Abraham. One sequence—strongly influenced by my very favorite film, The Conformist (because of its visual resemblance to Vittorio Storaro's lighting)—is as thrilling and suspenseful as any setpiece usually reserved for espionage movies. In it, Jopling silently and openly stalks an innocent functionary (Jeff Goldblum), reveling in the intimidation before cruelly assassinating him in order to further Dmitri's objectives. It may not be as graphic as the woodland killing of The Conformist's Professor Quadri, but we do see fingers severed, about as bloody and cruel a disruption as one could imagine in an Anderson film.
If Anderson pulls back on anything, it is this. Where most of his heroes have been men-children, Moonrise Kingdom went a little further afield by casting an actual child as the lead for the first time. For a director who employs a great deal of distancing effects in his work, the use of a child actor as the prime mover made Moonrise a little more difficult for me to fully embrace. I am glad that though young, Revolori is an adult. The more fanciful aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel would somehow feel too precious if it was a boy doing the story's heavy lifting.
Perfectly cast, beautifully and evocatively lensed, masterfully told, The Grand Budapest Hotel is sure to satisfy Anderson's fans, if not his critics. Time will tell if it truly represents the quintessence of his work. But one thing is clear. The first great movie of 2014 has arrived, and it is a terrific, touching adventure.