The Grand Budapest Hotel Written and directed by Wes Anderson; with Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronen, Mathieu Amalric, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson
There is much to savor in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the eighth film by American writer-director Wes Anderson, which recently won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and has now opened in Israel. First, the movie’s visual design is brilliant and inventive; second, the plot is constructed of multiple stories set one within the other, and Anderson, with the help of cinematographer Robert Yeoman, gives every story the appearance and screen size appropriate to its historical moment; and third, there is the large, entertaining cast led by Ralph Fiennes, who gives one of his best and most prominent recent performances. However, for all these pleasures, which certainly make it worth seeing, something about “The Grand Budapest Hotel” causes the overall experience to dissolve, leaving behind a vague memory of blandness, as though we do not quite know why so much obvious effort and talent went into making this movie.
I liked Anderson’s previous films, which had many of the same qualities as his latest offering – from “Rushmore” through “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” to “The Darjeeling Limited.” I liked their bizarreness, their eccentricity, the existentially off-key quality they represented, their constant surprises, and especially their deft combination of content and form. Those movies managed not to collapse into their own overt strangeness, but rather turned it into a new reality, both real and fictional, which had a rich human message, full of melancholy and irony.
I also liked Anderson’s 2012 picture, “Moonlight Kingdom,” but even as I watched it and responded to it, I felt a certain concern. It seemed as though Anderson’s usually precise balance of form and content and of the real and the artificial was starting to be disrupted in favor of form and artificiality. I worried then that Anderson’s cinematic vision – and he is certainly one of the few American directors today pursuing a vision all his own – was succumbing to an excess of mannerisms that would limit and damage it.
I also enjoyed his animated feature “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” another work of inspired and lovely visual inventions, but perhaps I should already then have started to fear for Anderson’s continued career. The bizarre, the eccentric and the unusual are valuable as long as you do not relish them to the point of losing yourself inside them; but “The Grand Budapest Hotel” seems to savor its own eccentricity too much. As a result, its wisdom often comes across as a forced cleverness, causing it to be less than the sum of its parts.
A vanished world
I have no doubt that Anderson made “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with great identification and commitment. A caption at the end of the movie tells us that it was inspired by the work of Austrian author and playwright Stefan Zweig, and the film indeed could have shared the title Zweig gave to his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday.” It opens in the present, when a writer (Tom Wilkinson) presents us with a story he promises to tell exactly as it happened – which is, of course, the first joke of a movie that looks throughout like a piece of fiction. The story then moves back to 1968, when the same writer, now played by Jude Law, is eating in the large, nearly empty dining room of the Grand Budapest Hotel, set in a resort town in the fictional republic of Zubrowka. The hotel, once a glamorous establishment, is an icon of the fashion, elegance and manners of a bygone era.
The writer is joined by the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and he in turn takes us back to 1932 (the same year – and probably not by coincidence – when the Oscar-winning “Grand Hotel” was made). That was the year he himself first arrived at the hotel as a young new employee and met M. Gustave, its almighty concierge. Gustave’s story, which fills most of the movie, will allow us to see how the world in which he ruled gradually gave way to a much uglier one of tyranny and greed. Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave, and the boy Moustafa – his first name is Zero – is charmingly portrayed by the movie’s only unknown actor, Tony Revolori.
I won’t even try to list the intrigues and plot twists that fill up Anderson’s 100-minute film; some are good, others less so. I am certain that what Anderson wanted to do here was to pay tribute to movies about disappearing worlds, but also to present a certain ironic view of such films, which are usually full of nostalgia for something that might have never really existed. However, something about the necessary balance between Anderson’s affection for the cinematic world he is building and his ironic take on that reality goes awry, and the movie’s tone oscillates between its different poles but never crystallizes into a steady framework of narrative and style.
In describing a vanishing world through the story of a man who spent his whole life nurturing that world before finding himself under its ruins, Anderson may also have been trying to say something about the constant upheavals that shape history in any era, including our own – upheavals that usually do not bode well for the humans who experience them. If that was the case, the movie’s message remains fuzzy, and it drowns in the excess of stories and clever devices.
Survival is a theme of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but Anderson has handled it with more sophistication and sensitivity in his earlier work. As I’ve said, there is much to enjoy in the movie, which attests to the many talents of its maker. This time, however, Anderson’s exploration of survival made me worry about his own. It is possible to become so unique that you get pushed out to a remote margin where no one ever looks. I would not want that to happen to Wes Anderson. I still believe in him.