Room Service on the Run
The latest Wes Anderson movie is set in the perfect Wes Anderson place: a large hotel in a fictional country. The hotel is The Grand Budapest and the country is Zubrowka, located on the eastern fringe of the European empire. It’s perfect because it allows Anderson’s iconic style to permeate into every facet of his creation without any anachronistic objections. It’s perfect because a rectangular resort is the ideal dioramic dollhouse for his beloved tracking shots, his hard right angles, and comical symmetry. Here, everything operates on a swivel following a grid made from pinks, purples, and greens.
Technically speaking, this may be Anderson’s best, most precise visual work. The bright colors, the finite details, the hallmark compositions are all there, this time better harnessed and more intensely choreographed. In recent years Anderson’s own last name has become an adjective for his idiosyncratic filmmaking, and, perhaps unfairly, his style-over-substance approach. His main characters are often surrounded by cartoonish personas assisting the story with contrasting colors and comedic timing. But these marginal figures are never treated glibly or with disdain. In fact they’re rather warm, evidenced by Seymour Castle’s haircutting father in Rushmore or by Bob Balaban’s narrator in Moonrise Kingdom.
The Grand Budapest Hotel relies on many of these figures. It begins in the present as a young girl observes a man’s statue beneath a dingy winter sky. The man is brought back to life in 1985 by Tom Wilkinson, an author who recites his memories from 1968, when he looked like Jude Law and first stepped into the Budapest. It was there he met Zero Moustafa, inhabited in old age by F. Murray Abraham, the hotel’s former heroic lobby boy, who recalls, and mostly narrates, his adolescence starting in 1932 working as protégé to the film’s protagonist and hotel owner Mr. Gustave, dressed in purple velvet by Ralph Fiennes. It’s a Russian doll of memories, offering a welcome but not always reliable relay of first hand accounts.
Mr. Gustave as we come to know is a strict but charming manager with a passion for perfume, guarding his past as much as he does his private life. He maintains order with despotic scrutiny and maintains customers by socializing extensively. His clientele are mostly female retirees and their cultivation comes largely by his seducing and sexual pleasuring. His most beloved affair is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a painted-up, sagging belle, who happens to be the matriarch of a wealthy family estate. Her unexpected, mysterious death prompts her family and acquaintances to divvy out her will, including its most prized possession, a Renaissance painting entitled, “Boy with Apple.” Her son Dmitiri (Adrian Brody with another Dali mustache) smirks with his assumed inheritance. “M. Gustave,” reads the executor. The shrieks of conspiracy pierce the anonymous purple suit emerging from the back.
Amidst the chaos of the revelatory news, Gustave and Zero (Tony Revolori) rush to smuggle their gold-framed bounty into hiding. The pair, with whom we quickly grown fond, appear eternally attached, their two heads peeping above each other’s shoulders. “A lobby boy must be invisible, but always in sight,” says Gustave, and Zero, with his delicately tilted hat, must embody this hotel wisdom. It’s especially true when Gustave, charged with murder by Dmitri, is sent to prison and Zero, with help from his girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, sporting a Mexican birthmark), facilitates a jailbreak. It’s perfectly orchestrated, featuring a shirtless Harvey Keitel, and exemplifies Anderson’s cinematic palette: meticulous, silly, and competent. It’s a great scene because it delivers both substance and style.
The caper expands its web as the two sprint around Europe. They’re pursued by a demonic hit-man (Willem Dafoe) with brass knuckles who brings the film some uncharacteristic pulp. This is a darker, perverse, and more melancholic version of Anderson though, again dutifully catered musically by Alexandre Desplat, their third straight pairing. Minor chords on the piano, Gregorian chants, and a strumming zither, a stringed instrument most prominently featured in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, reflects the film’s gothic tone. It also gives a layer of mystery to this made-up world that is still very much nestled into the realities of twentieth century war.
Anderson based some of the movie off stories from Stefan Zweig, a novelist who fled Austria once Hitler came to power. A similar kind of fascist anxiety exists in the background of Budapest, specifically as SS-looking guards interrogate Gustave and Zero in a train car. One of the leaders is played by Edward Norton, headlining a laundry list of cameos from Anderson favorites including Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Mathieu Almaric. These familiar faces are comedic in the sense that you know them. You laugh because the camera’s tilts and zooms towards the heroes of films past are affirmations of expectation, rewarding in their inevitable charm.
Anderson is a deceptive and sometimes underappreciated director because his themes often take backseats to his humorous, painterly flair. When Gustave and Zero run through the snow they evoke Moonrise Kingdom’s adolescent outlaws and a ski-chase scene made of figurines appear like Fantastic Mr, Fox’s stop-motion. Where they’re running is less important than how they’re running. More than other directors, though, Anderson has an attainable, memorable style. It, like Agatha’s carefully crafted pastries, is often too decorated to cut and bite into. His tableau, two-dimensionality is perfectly fine to admire, but often suggests a lack of intimacy.
This latest effort maintains the picturesque but subverts this logic, adding more depth. A nostalgic, wondrous glow infects the movie’s momentum. The chronology may be distorted, the colors embellished, the characters melded into caricatures. But Anderson suggests his style is just the equivalent of memory, especially one trying to escape an imperialist Europe. By the end he zooms us back to the present and in that moment you reconsider how grateful you are. Grateful that so much color and adventure can be passed down to a life that’s now just an old bronze bust.