With ’Grand Budapest Hotel,’ Wes Anderson Dreams of Pre-WWII Europe
A new Wes Anderson film arrives like a magician’s latest illusion, greeted by questions of not just "How does he do it?" but "What is it, exactly?"
Anderson, like few other directors, has perpetually kept critics and moviegoers off-balance with his idiosyncratic blend of orchestrated whimsy, deep-rooted melancholy and deadpan slapstick. When he privately screened his second film, "Rushmore," for Pauline Kael, the rarely uncertain critic responded, "I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes." Lacking a more sufficient barometer, his movies are typically first judged on a scale of how "Wes Anderson-y" it is.
On that count, his latest registers about a 10. "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which opened Friday, is ultimately about a fastidious concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), he takes on as a protege at an ornate alpine resort in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. After a multilayered framing device guided across eras by characters played by Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson and F. Murray Abraham, the film presents a portrait of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1930s, just as the rise of fascism (the SS here is the ZZ) is bringing an end to a refined way of life.
Gustave, who efficiently runs the hotel with old-world elegance but an unapologetic unscrupulousness (he has a habit of bedding old widows), is twice called in the film "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."
It’s a caper, with a stolen painting, a murderous stalking scene (taken straight out of Hitchcock’s "Torn Curtain"), an elaborate prison break and a gun fight. There are the old-fashioned hotel accoutrements of an elevator seat, a bathhouse, comically small servants’ quarters and a funicular. It’s an early 20th century playhouse for Anderson - a dream of a genteel Europe that never quite existed, imagined by someone steeped in movies (Ernst Lubitsch and ’30s Hitchcock, in particular) and the stories of early 1900s Viennese author Stefan Zweig (a major inspiration on the film).
Anderson’s eighth film also may be for the 44-year-old director the definitive statement about his kind of movie reality. With miniatures (like the exterior of the hotel) mixed in and a ski chase scene filmed with figurines, its plainly artificial environs are crowded with realistically emotional characters.
"When I see a James Bond movie, I see a great deal of artificiality," Anderson said in a recent interview. "It’s a style of special effects that’s just very familiar to us right now and we accept as a version of reality.
"There’s no layer of artiness about it," he says. "Not that I’m deeply opposed to it, but just for my own work, I’m not particularly drawn to that way of working. I like to see if we can experiment with old-fashioned techniques that I’ve always really liked. I love miniatures and different kinds of animations - things that are like magic tricks. I’m drawn to those. I feel like they have a certain charm. And I just sort of make an assumption that we all know that this is a kind of a concoction."
Anderson doesn’t just delight in antiquated film techniques. His films - his concoctions - are in many ways odes to analog worlds: the record player of "Moonrise Kingdom," the book jackets of "The Royal Tenenbaums," the portraits of "Rushmore."