In an interview from the promo tour of his latest creation, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson shared an observation from his close friend and collaborator, the underrated Owen Wilson – Wilson (who of course has a cameo in this new flick) thought that with each new film, Anderson is becoming tenser and tenser. Surprisingly, Anderson not only agrees, but is even proud of this fact. It is difficult to imagine Wes Anderson as a tense man, having in mind his perfectly controlled, strict and impeccable visual style. But obviously, there is truth in Wilson’s note, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is something of a testament to this. The film, set in the 1930’s in the imaginary Central European country of Zubrowka, is the fastest-paced and the most action-infused piece in Anderson’s oeuvre. By the director’s own admission, some of his on-set instructions towards Ralph Fiennes (who perfectly embodies M.Gustave, the film’s main protagonist) involved simply shouting “Faster! Faster!” The gentlemanly Fiennes is too talented to not pull off the frenetic pace, and this contributes to one of his more different and memorable roles. To the untrained eye, if looks like Anderson has now achieved such a grasp of his famous mannered approach to film making, that he is trying to push his limits by upping the tempo and attempting to discover what is the speed limit at which true perfection can remain true.
It is, of course, foolish to think that Wes Anderson does things for the sake of exercise, or as a lab experiment. He is too obsessed with the grander purpose of creating those purely original, almost fantastical worlds that still touch upon reality at their most poignant points. He is equally obsessed with inhabiting these worlds with an array of unbelievable, yet extremely believable characters, people we are stunned to encounter but who we somehow know from before. “I wish I could have imagined all this, because I know about it deep inside, I can feel it” – is the common film-goer’s sentiment while sitting through another Wes Anderson experience. And this is because Anderson’s stories are human above all – style, symmetry and ornamentation are the bait, humor is the fishing line, but emotion is the hook on Mr. Anderson’s exquisite fishing rod.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy more than anything else, but it still becomes Anderson’s probably most socially and politically oriented film. In the filmmaker’s very idiosyncratic style, it touches upon immigration, racial discrimination, fascism and war. It’s difficult to say these are central themes, as Anderson is, as per usual, too centered on the fate of the individual. But they are present anyway. To be sure, Anderson makes a point of stylizing them too – for instance, his take on the great war is to combine the two World Wars into one, set right between the two actual historical events and featuring and SS-like organization that is labeled “ZZ” instead. Pure genius.
The director employs a narrative technique that he borrowed from the writings of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. He brackets a story inside a story happening 20 years later (and even those are framed by shots of another story that happens another 20 years past the time of telling). What this achieves is to sharply focus the attention upon the main plot line, turn its story into something of a fable, and romanticize its characters. It is the perfect platform for Anderson to unleash his visual panache and precision, but also to subvert expectations when he so desires. This means that M.Gustave generally behaves as he is supposed to – the noble concierge of a top European hotel with mostly aristocratic guests in the third decade of last century; but then he would suddenly start to curse like a modern gangsta.
The nesting-doll technique finds a purely visual expression, too – in the shape of the film’s shifting aspect ratios. Wes Anderson starts the film with a stylized plate instructing viewers how to set their screening devices. Similar, but much more detailed instructions were sent to theaters playing the movie. From here on, the various story brackets are played in 1,85:1, 2.35:1, and most importantly, the outdated and almost square Academy ratio of 1,375:1. The framing is of course, never compromised in any way, which can only suggest all set designs and costumes were predetermined long before the start of shooting. We can now duly expect copycat waves of films with jumping aspect ratios from all over the world.
As for the casting, it’s probably safe to say (again) that they all come running when Wes beckons. The director reunites with Adrien Brody (as an evil fortune inheritor), Edward Norton (as a noble Nazi), Jason Schwartzman (as a nervous receptionist), and of course, with his ever-present dinosaur (apart from Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket) – Bill-fucking-Murray. And then you have, in no particular order of importance: Willem Dafoe (as a psychotic killer, what else), Jeff Goldblum (as an honest attorney), Harvey Keitel (as a tough, bare-chested and tattooed prison breaker), Jude Law (as Jude Law), Tilda Swinton (looking like a walking corpse, as the old lady M. Gustave pleasures and then inherits), F.Murray Abraham (as the emotional, perfectly spoken storyteller of the middle plot bracket of that nesting-doll structure), and many more… Special mention should be reserved for the debuting Tony Revolori (as the young and very attentive immigrant, Zero), in the search of whom Wes Anderson apparently went to great lengths.
With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has managed to strip his style of all excessive fat (if there ever was any), and present a symmetrical, perfectly adorned and technically astute tribute to his love for Europe’s old world. One can hardly get bored with Wes Anderson, and should his next film follow a similar path, it will surely find plenty of fans again. But a feeling remains that his upcoming creation will be a slightly different animal. I, for one, can’t wait.