Nathan: Well, folks, we’ve had the pleasure of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest and most Wes Anderson-y of Wes Anderson movies. I thought Moonrise Kingdom was the most Wes Anderson a movie could get, but this is so inextricably rooted in Anderson’s finely wrought sensibility that it makes Moonrise Kingdom look cold and impersonal by comparison. I mean this as high praise: The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Anderson refining and perfecting his style rather than lapsing into self-parody. It’s dense and entertaining, with an ingenious narrative structure that nestles one story within another like a series of Russian nesting dolls. It reminded me of the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading: Both films feel like miraculous Rube Goldberg contraptions that control audiences to such an extent that they don’t even realize just how adroitly they’re being manipulated until the film drops them off at the end of the line, exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. The two films also share a sometimes-dizzying density and velocity: They’re a whole lot of movie, and I can’t wait to hop onboard the ride again, despite knowing where it’s headed.
Tasha, you are on record as not being a fan of Wes Anderson, or Bill Murray, or sunshine and the noses of puppy dogs and the music of The Beatles and everything else good in the universe, yet you enjoyed this film. What made the difference? Why did this particularly Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson joint work for you where something like Rushmore didn’t?
Tasha: Hey, I like the Beatles just fine, thank you. But you’re somewhat right about that other stuff. I’ve never been a big Bill Murray fan; even in his best roles, he has a smug, self-aware remove that I find tremendously distancing. And while I’m not nearly so put off by Anderson’s films, his level of affectation can have a similarly distancing effect. I really enjoy the meticulousness and specificity of his films: They look and feel like absolutely no one else’s, and I’d be a fan of that strength of voice even if I hated his work. Which I don’t. But I have trouble emotionally connecting to his films, because they feel so constructed and artificial, especially with regard to the ultra-quirky characters, who increasingly feel like elaborately hand-carved toys. The clear passion that goes into the making of an Anderson film often doesn’t come across in the arch writing and performances.
That said, I think his films just keep getting stronger as his voice keeps getting more confidently weird and distinctive. I enjoyed 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom more unequivocally than any Wes Anderson film before it, and the same goes again for Grand Budapest Hotel, which is more playful and absurdist than his previous films, but also more dramatic, with more action and intensity of a type entirely in keeping with Anderson’s sensibility. Keith, did you feel this was any different from Anderson’s past films?
Keith: I’m loath to start a “What’s your favorite Wes Anderson movie?” sidetrack, especially since my favorite Wes Anderson film tends to be the last one I saw. And I’m equally reluctant to declare Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson’s best, because I have such a sentimental attachment to films I’ve lived with a lot longer. Even so, these last two feel like the work of an already-confident director getting even more assured. This might be, as Nathan suggests, Anderson’s busiest film, but it’s also one of his subtlest. It’s exhaustively detailed, but every detail counts, and nothing here ever feels like Anderson’s straining for effect.
Tasha, you object to the “constructed” and “artificial” elements of Anderson’s films, but I think a lot of the poignancy of his movies comes from those qualities. They’re endlessly fussed-over, but that fastidiousness gets echoed in the material of the films themselves, which tend to be about protagonists trying to construct a little order and sensibleness in the middle of a chaotic world. That’s certainly true of Budapest. We never learn much about M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), but his toughness and outbursts of profanity suggest he comes from a more challenging background than the sort that usually produces a man of such refined airs. But we don’t really need to learn that much about him, since we learn that Zero (Tony Revolori), his successor, is fleeing a tragic situation, and everything about the way M. Gustave grooms him suggests their relationship is just the latest variation of an ongoing pattern. They’re making themselves over into the men they want to be, and in the process, attempting to maintain the Grand Budapest as an outpost of civilization, no matter how tumultuous the outside world. I think Anderson understands that impulse, and I think he’s learning to use it to express himself more skillfully—and movingly, since this extremely funny film is also a heartbreaker—the longer he works.
Nathan, what about you? Have you noticed a shift in Anderson’s work over the last few years?
Nathan: Anderson’s work has always been personal, but I think it’s becoming even more personal, to the point where it’s more or less impossible to imagine anyone else making Wes Anderson’s movies, or to imagine Anderson making a non-personal film. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what a Wes Anderson Marvel movie would look or feel like, though now I’m a little intrigued by that prospect.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a velocity and a denseness beyond anything Anderson has done before. The film hurtles forward at such breakneck speed that it can be easy to overlook how sad so much of the film is, but that deep, authentic streak of melancholy is what really affected me upon the second viewing. As you wrote, Keith, there’s something incredibly poignant about a man like M. Gustave trying to maintain the illusion of civilization in a world gone mad. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a haven, but there comes a point where even its sacrosanct walls are not immune to the madness and destruction of the outside world. Considering Anderson’s fetish for order and neatness, it’s positively inspired for him to make a concierge his protagonist, and Fiennes delivers a riotously, wonderfully profane performance characterized by intense control interspersed with moments of despair and pure abandon.
Anderson has created such an intricately detailed universe that The Grand Budapest Hotel is able to glean huge laughs of recognition from the appearances of repertory players like Murray and Bob Balaban in the third act; their tiny little cameos are smartly written and acted, but it’s a measure of the enormous affection Anderson has acquired from everyone other than you, Tasha, that Balaban doesn’t even have to open his mouth to engender a wave of good feeling.
So this is my question to you all: Where do you think this fits in the Wes Anderson oeuvre? And while Anderson said in a Q&A in Chicago recently that he probably should have given Hugo Guinness a co-screenplay credit, it seems notable that this is the first film in which he is credited as the sole screenwriter. Do you think that makes a difference?
Tasha: It’s hard for people who weren’t present in the writing room to say what either party brings to a collaboration, so I wouldn’t know how much, or in what way, to credit Anderson’s past writing partners—Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Noah Baumbach—though as the Royal Tenenbaums forum noted in passing last week, it’s certainly possible to find hints about the nature of their contributions in their own movies, or in their own lives. But given that this movie has so much familiar, signature Anderson style and tone, and yet is so much lighter, fluffier, and fun, I’m tempted to say his collaborators (who have made some fairly painful, emotionally heavy films themselves, or in Wilson’s case, have played an awful lot of tragic characters) have been pushing him toward a dramatic heaviness that this pure-Anderson film doesn’t have.
What I love most about Grand Budapest Hotel is its airiness. Like all Anderson’s films, it has a core of melancholy and failure. It starts at an author’s grave, establishing his death before digging into his life, so his eventual end hangs as grim parentheses around the whole story. It follows the same course with the Grand Budapest, shown as a run-down wreck before the story flashes back to its heyday; while the place is a wonderland in its glory days, we’ve already seen that it’ll end up as a failing, forlorn institution. And yet the whole movie is bounding, zippy, and playful, driven by a sense of barely restrained mania. Sorrow and goofiness have always been opposing forces in Anderson’s films, balanced to different degrees—Fantastic Mr. Fox is much bouncier and giddier than The Royal Tenenbaums, as similar as they are in other ways—but I’d say this is the first case where the goofiness is ascendant. In Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and even Moonrise Kingdom, the sorrow feels real and the humor feels like play-acting, like a mask the characters are trying to fit over their real faces. In Grand Budapest, for the first time, that formula is
Keith: What my response presupposes is… What if it isn’t? I don’t know, Tasha, I saw this as one of Anderson’s saddest movies, in spite of the bouncy, antic qualities. I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers here, but darkness starts to overwhelm this movie toward the end, particularly the one-two gut-punches once it makes good on some foreshadowing and shifts to black and white. The most tragic events take place offscreen, but the weariness that overwhelms the narration and the way the state of the Grand Budapest reflects that weariness really did a number on me. The Latin phrase “sic transit gloria” has hovered in the background of Anderson’s films ever since Max Fischer spoke it in Rushmore. Here, it feels like he’s bringing it to the fore. The shot of Saoirse Ronan’s character haloed by twirling lights is one of the most beautiful images in the film, but by the time it appears, the film has already suggested she isn’t heading toward a happy fate.
Nathan: I’m with you on finding The Grand Budapest Hotel melancholy and even achingly sad at times once you get beneath the busy, buzzy, gorgeously composed surface. There are moments throughout that really stick with me. Without getting into spoiler territory, I found the military commander played by Edward Norton enormously affecting; I choked up when he explained to his men that when he was a lonely little boy, M. Gustave was kind to him, a kindness that clearly left a deep and profound impression, albeit one not quite strong enough to completely override the character’s commitment to his job.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a manic, effervescent quality in its early going that is utterly intoxicating, but after a certain point, it becomes achingly apparent that all this foolishness and tomfoolery and granny-loving is taking place against a backdrop of a long and tragic war. And in war, there are casualties, and there is madness and chaos and anarchy and savage brutality and everything else M. Gustave (and, by extension, Wes Anderson) has devoted his entire existence to fighting. The tragedy of The Grand Budapest Hotel is that even a man as preternaturally efficient and accomplished as M. Gustave can only keep the madness of a world at war at bay for so long. Upon first viewing, I found Grand Budapest Hotel an airy delight; on the second viewing it struck me as a film with an ebullient exterior and a core of deep, real pain.
Tasha: Yes, yes, war is hell, etc. But Anderson doesn’t foreground anything about that war except the tragic border-crossing issues, where the outside world impinges on M. Gustave’s carefully maintained veneer of control. Instead, Anderson foregrounds a complicated world of intrigue, where people rush around on improbable conveyances, concierges band into secret societies, people just leave complicated alpine slalom courses lying around to interfere with chase scenes, and the most ubiquitous brand is a bakery whose powder-pink boxes conceal Seussian towers of pastel pastries. The backdrop is grim, but the actual experience of the film is much lighter and more playful than you seem to credit. As I said earlier, the frame is tragic, pointing out that all these wonders are dead and gone, but so much of the actual film is about living in the heart of wonder, and preserving a bygone way of life no matter what wolves are at the door.
So much of that theme is communicated via the elaborate production design, but just as much comes across via Alexandre Desplat’s score, which uses lute, balalaika, organ, bells, alpine yodeling, and more triangle than I’ve ever noticed on a movie soundtrack before, all to create a sense of nonstop busyness. The majority of the soundtrack rushes along intently, not in a panic, but like it has urgent business to conduct elsewhere, and it sets a tone that’s much more preoccupied, energetic, and excited than tragic.
Keith: I’m not saying the film isn’t a pleasure. It’s a delight machine. But I think, as always with Anderson, the possibility of tragedy keeps it grounded and anchors all that busyness. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I’m not sure if one element didn’t balance the other, we’d be spending as much time talking about Anderson’s films as we have over the last week (and no doubt will again down the line). There’s depth to this film, and others by Anderson, beyond the elaborate details of the production design.