Being a massive fan of Wes Anderson and his films, it was quite a shock when, unlike the rest of the world, I found myself less than impressed with his previous film “Moonrise Kingdom”. While I was definitely in the minority, with most people counting the film as the director’s best, I just found the film to be too self consciously quirky for its own good, and the (over) stylization of the film ended up suffocating the emotional drama within. What is most surprising about this is that it is these quirks and his exact visual stylisations of his films that I usually find the most endearing about Anderson’s features, and yet with “Moonrise Kingdom”, I found these same things the film’s greatest deficiency. I was worried that Anderson had come as far as he could with his style of making films or I had just grown tired of it; either way it saddened me. Thankfully, Anderson’s follow up film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, has come out in quick succession and as soon as I saw the film’s first trailer, I knew that I was going to love this film; strange, considering it looked his most stylised film to date.
The majority of the film is set in the early 1930’s in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, where we are witness to the many adventures of the famed concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave H. and his trusted lobby boy, Zero. The oddball couple find themselves mixed up in a story involving a murder mystery, an art theft, a jailbreak and a battle of wills in regards to a family fortune, all against the backdrop of impending war.
After watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” it goes without saying that my reaction towards “Moonrise Kingdom” must have been an anomaly because I absolutely love Wes Anderson’s new film, to the point that it may even be my favourite film from him yet. As the trailers indicated this is indeed Anderson’s most stylised film to date, but unlike the previous film, this style works in favour of the film, not against it. Whilst Anderson’s previous films have always been quirky, there was always a reality within them; be it the very human themes he was dealing with or the characters that inhabited his worlds. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is pure fantasy, playing more like an animated film than anything that exists in the real world, and it is this reason that the stylisation within the film works so well. Anderson actually appears to be celebrating the artifice of the film, and of filmmaking in general of that period (the 1930’s) with his use of matte paintings and extensions, his use of models and miniatures and even the odd scene done via stop motion. In fact the film reminded me a lot of the British films that Hitchcock made back in the thirties which is a huge compliment. Even though I feel this is Anderson’s most stylised film to date, I also believe that he uses restraint in regards to this style beautifully. He seems totally in control of the film at all times, with his minute details and exact framing coming through in every shot, and yet it never feels overdone here. It goes without saying that the work done by Anderson’s greatest collaborator, Robert Yeoman (his cinematographer), is yet again exemplary. One thing I was happy to see go was Anderson’s fascination with the colour yellow, with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” using a slightly different colour palette than normal. While the film is still full of pastel colours, pink seems to be the dominant colour here with the hotel itself being that colour, as are the boxes containing the famous pastries used in the film.
While I stand to be corrected here, I’m guessing that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has the largest number of characters so far in a Wes Anderson film and amazingly all of these characters seem to be played by huge stars of both Hollywood and abroad. Anderson’s regular troupe of actors all show up here, some in blink-and-you will-miss-it roles, but it is always great to see Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwartzman show up in these films. Anderson has yet again introduced a number of new faces into his team with characters also being played by Saorise Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel and MatthieuAmalric to name but a few. However the greatest performance in the film comes from none other than Ralph Fiennes who plays our lead character Gustave H. He is absolutely hilarious in the film and for mine, this is his best performance to date. Casting directors need to take note at just how great Fiennes is at doing comedy, because in both this film and “In Bruges” he absolutely shines at his brightest, but it appears that he keeps getting relegated to the same stuffy type period roles. Anyway, the way he portrays Gustave is as a man who takes his job as concierge with the utmost respect and sincerity (which he expects from all his staff), and if he happens to get something out of it, it is all well and good. He also sees himself as something of a poet and his use of the English language is always of an appropriate nature although he is not above dropping the odd “F” bomb or making insulting generalisations if backed into a corner. What I also loved about Fiennes’s performance was the physical side he brought to the character particularly the ridiculous way Gustave ran. However, Fiennes is only as good as he is due to his partner he is acting with and the chemistry between he and Tony Revolori (who plays Zero) is sublime. The way the two bounce off of each other is hilarious particularly with the deadpan way Revolori delivers his lines.
While the film is no doubt a “Wes Anderson” film, it is something of a departure for this talented director. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is his first murder/mystery and it is also his most violent film to date. At no times would you call the film a gore-fest, but there is enough blood and dismembered fingers within to differentiate it from the rest of the Anderson canon. The film also has a number of suspense sequences, including a spectacular one involving Jeff Goldblum’s character, and I must admit I was surprised at just how well Anderson was at constructing the sequences and maintaining the suspense throughout. It proves that there is more to Anderson than just the quirks and visual ticks of his films.
Another interesting thing in regards to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the fact that the story is told across three different time periods, with Anderson differentiating each period by a different aspect ratio. The majority of the film plays in the 1930’s and during these scenes Anderson employs the Academy ratio or the 4:3 “square” ratio that was used in films of that era. The parts that take place in the 60’s and modern time are shot in the 2:35 “widescreen” ratio and the 1:85 ratio (of today’s television screens) respectively. While artistically the change in ratios is a great idea, it does seem to cause problems when the film is being shown theatrically. From a personal standpoint I must say that I like the fact that the old Academy ratio seems to be in vogue these days, and that more films and filmmakers are using it. It is great at showcasing depth in a shot and with the amount of detail Anderson puts into every frame of his film, it seems obvious that he would have no problem mastering the frame and that it would benefit him greatly.
Due to the fact that the film is about a character reminiscing, there is obviously a sense of nostalgia in the story being told. The film takes place between two wars, and as such cannot have been the nicest of times, but due to the nostalgia infused into the story, it is always presented in the most positive of lights. And yet the film also has strong sense of melancholy attached to it, which is always present but never overpowers the film. It is always in the background, never front and centre, but comes from the inevitable outcomes of a number of the characters and the fact that the story takes place during a time of great change; it is the end of an era and the things that Gustave loves about the world are slowly disappearing.
Overall, I just fell in love with “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. It is a fantastically scripted film that is full of hilarious one liners delivered with vigour by the entire cast but particularly by Ralph Fiennes. With Gustave H., both Anderson and Fiennes have made their greatest character yet. The only issue I have with the film is that I think the “double” framing device may be a little too cute for its own good, but that is it. The film is hyper-stylised but Anderson keeps everything in check and never lets the style overpower the story he is telling. The murder/mystery, while light, is perfectly handled by Anderson and he also shows great skill in creating and sustaining suspense in a number of scenes. Also with a running time of just 100 minutes, the film is crammed to the gills. It is thoroughly entertaining and is arguably Anderson’s greatest achievement to date.