Although Wes Anderson cemented his place in passionate film-school discussions for years to come as soon as he released RUSHMORE in 1998, audiences have not always been as enthusiastic. It is understandable. Anderson, with all his strange unique visual quirks and simulated glass-ball worlds, is an acquired taste, at best, and impenetrably bizarre and distant, at worst. And yet, his films satisfy the fundamental requirement for movie-goers’ pleasure: escapism. Not even a schizophrenic would dare think any of Anderson’s movies were set even remotely close to the “real world” – his movies are not just flawlessly composed art, they are a vacation in Wes Anderson’s mind and memory, where I like to imagine that I can see a young socially uncomfortable Anderson spending hours in his room meticulously dreaming up this alternate universe with its distinctly cinematic point-of-view, its laconically disconnected characters and everything “just so” to the point of OCD. Since every event is filtered through Anderson’s picky subconscious, nothing too bad or sad ever happens in his movies. And that suits most of us just fine.
So there is the feeling that audiences were always waiting to give him the time of day, as soon as his sophomoric fetishization of misé en scene and camera movement took a backseat to heartfelt character development and story. And that has proved true. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), a sharply observed comedy of family dysfunction and childhood scars, was his first major triumph. The next one came in 2012 with MOONRISE KINGDOM, an even more moving story of adolescent love on the run from adults who just do not get it. And so it is with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, to date his greatest critical and commercial success.The emotion which powerfully pervades this movie is nostalgia – an ache for a bygone world of civilization and culture. The movie is set in 1932, just before the madness that was the Second World War engulfed everything in its wake and ensured that the world would never be the same again. The period is a veritable storehouse of nostalgia for those who find the old world and all its graceful charm irresistible (DOWNTON ABBEY being a prominent case in point). The movie tries to capture that last moment in history when being rich was still something fashionable, and genteel society could indulge in its many orchestrated social functions without fear of undue outrage or mockery. It is set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, where the impeccably tasteful Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes in an Oscar-worthy turn) runs the lustrous, extravagant Grand Budapest Hotel, with an iron hand and a poetic bent of mind. He takes in the young orphaned lobby boy Zero Moustafa (teenaged newcomer Tony Revolori, suitably bemused and vulnerable) as his protégé. This M. Gustave is something of a dilettante, but his interest lies solely in the old, rich, blonde, insecure women who frequent his hotel. When his favourite Madame D dies in mysterious circumstances and the blame falls on Gustave, he and Zero set off on a cockamamie adventure to prove his innocence.
Underlying the film is the theme of a battle between the forces of a cutthroat unsophisticated modernity, personified by Willam Dafoe as the brass-knuckled fixer JG Jopling, and the old world and all its intricate architecture, as exemplified by the secret Society of the Crossed Keys, a network of concierges of luxury hotels. Although, in keeping with the movie’s tone of light comedy, Jopling is defeated by Gustave and Zero, we see in the end that it is only but a slight pushing back of the hordes of the modern world – the tide of history is not so easily sent back. Gustave is not only a last defence against the forces of a new discourteous vogue, he is also one of its first casualties. Like Zero remarks, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it.” This strain of pathos is so sincere and affecting that it even turns Jeff Goldblum, that most madcap of actors, into a grave and dignified solicitor.
In terms of technique and style, one can write (and indeed, many have written) entire books about the films of Wes Anderson – the stunning exactitude of his geometrically symmetric shot composition, the carefully orchestrated tracking shots, the picturesque stop-motion animation, the lavish care devoted upon every sofa cover, every lampshade, every fibre of Gustave’s jacket, so that not a hair is out of place anywhere, his uniquely fragmentary colour palette, the charming effervescent background score (courtesy regular Anderson collaborator Alexandre Desplat) – a Wes Anderson movie can never be mistaken for the work of someone else. The overwhelming impression is that of a gigantic, gorgeously decorated wedding cake.
I feel I must mention at this point that for all its inherent sadness and all its technical flourishes, the film is, at its very basic, a madcap farce, and a delightful one at that. Quite simply, it is Wes Anderson’s funniest and most enjoyable film. Just about every scene has a moment of sly humor and delicate satire, but it also does not shy away from out-and-out slapstick. It also helps that, for all the dramatic nous Ralph Fiennes has demonstrated over the years from SCHINDLER’S LIST to THE ENGLISH PATIENT, he is also a comedian of the highest pedigree. Only Bill Murray might command a similar level of comic timing, but then Bill Murray is God.
There are many similarities between the director and his elegant protagonist – they are both Renaissance men, born long after the eras they admired, yet striving to sustain the illusion that all is not lost. For all the Transformers movies that we have to sit through or all the senseless brutality that sweeps through our world, we only need stand with strong moral fibre against the barbarian hordes and tell them to buzz off, and we may yet win this war on culture.
“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. He was one of them. What more is there to say?”