There may be no more aesthetically sensitive American filmmaker today than Wes Anderson. He lavishes so much love on the look of his actors, sets and costumes that he could be said to be the cinematic heir of Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick. He is, of course, not the infamous perfectionist that Kubrick was, nor does not make his actors endure hundreds of takes per shot as did Kubrick and the perfectionist Lang. And neither does his body of work yet rival theirs. But like Lang and Kubrick, Anderson still manages to achieve small perfections in the small slithers of self-sufficient worlds he creates. This petite perfectionism is no more evident than in Grand Budapest Hotel (adapted from Stefan Zweig’s 1927 novel), a film that approximates the heights of wonderful whimsy that Anderson achieved in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012).
I do not think it necessary here to discuss the already well-known plot of Grand Budapest Hotel, a film inspired by the writings of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and whose droll plot concerns how a young lobby attendant (Tony Revolori) came to be the later proprietor (F. Murray Abraham) of the ‘storied’ Grand Budapest Hotel’ in a small fictional Central European state—it involves a disputed will, a priceless Breughelian painting and its Schiele-esque impostor, and a prison escape that involves tiny cupcake cutters used to break down the bars of a prison window (a scene that AO Scott aptly called perhaps ‘the most Wes Anderson thing ever’)—because this is one of those movies that is just begging to be observed an enjoyed regardless of whether one can follow its story.
Again, as in so many of his films, Anderson’s set designs are a marvel of imaginative creation. What distinguishes the look and feel of Grand Budapest Hotel, though, is its surprising darkness. As in Jean Renoir’s great ‘La règle du jeu’ [‘The Rules of the Game’] (1939), the frightening reality that the impending outbreak of another world war—and the impending end of a certain European way of life—will soon envelop the sweet, sensual aesthetes and innocuous aristocrats hangs over this film like an ominous storm cloud looming over a stream of innocent Sunday strollers. In creating this feeling of frightening foreboding, Anderson uses the style of Renoir, and—rather appropriately for a film set in 1930’s Central Europe—the cinematographic legacies of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
The set designs Anderson created for some of the movie’s darker scenes, and the costumes he created for the eerie Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and the menacing Jopling (Willem Dafoe) owe a significant debt to German Expressionism. With his waxen-faced pallor and his long, tight black outfit, Brody’s look evokes Graf Orlok (Max Schreck) of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)—a character, of course, so memorably played years later by Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Dafoe’s Grand Budapest Hotel character—he plays Dmitri’s family’s haunting hit-man—with his shadowy eyes and coal-black outfit, conjure the mad scientist C.A. Rotwang of Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
Even though this masterfully made movie and these delightfully dark characters have their macabre aspects, at the heart of this film is a playful lightness and a melancholic love for the lost world in which this lightness flourished. We see the love for this lost lightness when we observe the affection that Anderson lavishes on his actors: look at the way he introduces Edward Norton’s character, or the wonderful way his camera winds and weaves with Jeff Goldbum as he walks; and look especially at the way his camera falls in love with one of the most lovable characters Anderson has ever created, the hotel concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes).
This may be Fiennes’ finest performance, which is saying a lot when one considers the incredible cadre of characters he has so splendidly played, from the monstrously vile Amon Goeth (Schindler’s List ) to the amorously virtuous Count Laszlo de Almásy (The English Patient ) to the soulful Michael Berg in The Reader (2008)—a performance that is easy to overlook because of its understated excellence. But the vainglorious Gustave H exceeds them all.
Gustave H, described twice during the film as ‘a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,’ is a genuine aesthete the type of which is rarely still seen. He dresses flawlessly, speaks immaculately and carries himself with the same playful dignity regardless of whether he is in a palace or prison. And he is the type of person who, upon escaping from prison, is more concerned with whether his accomplice has brought him the exact kind of perfume he requested (L’Air de Panache, if you must know) than catching the getaway van. Like Thomas Mann’s Herr Settembrini in The Magic Mountain, Gustave H is an art-loving and poetry-reciting humanistic but is charmingly free of Settembrini’s grating pedagoguery. And, as Wed Anderson can be said to be the Oscar Wilde of contemporary cinema, Gustave H is his wonderfully Wildean mouthpiece—a character who lives for art itself, and who lives to please others; Gustave H exists not to edify, but to enjoy.
Gustave’s suave gift of the gab is charming to listen to, and his smoothly delivered witticisms are a gift to the thinking moviegoer’s intellect. But even more amusing than his verbal acuity is the nuanced acting that Fiennes does with his face. He communicates so many subtleties of feeling and so many intricate inner stirrings with the twinkles of his eyes and with the occasional compression of his lips that there is an entire movie to be watched from observing his face alone.
In the middle of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, there is a shot that is so carefully constructed and so perfectly executed that it has been admired for generations as a symbol of cinematographic and actor excellence. Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), the master of the house of a fading upper-class estate and a collector of specialty music boxes, is displaying his latest piece—the most prized acquisition of his collecting career—to a small audience. When the camera turns from the quirky contraption to Dalio, we see his face: he is joyfully contented, yet unable to conceal the real embarrassment about being so overjoyed. This single ambivalent emotion is communicated in an instant—blink, and you miss it. It is as if the glint in his eyes and the subdued smile of his lips is saying, ‘yes, I am happy, but can this truly be the apogee of my life? This, is my grandest achievement?’ According to Roger Ebert, Renoir had to reshoot this scene for two days because Dalio’s facial expression had to be just right: ‘proud, and a little embarrassed to be so proud, and delighted, but a little shy to reveal it. The finished shot,’ writes Ebert, ‘is a study in complexity, and Renoir says it may be the best shot he ever filmed.’
It has been many years since we have seen a shot like this, but such a shot can be seen at the end of Grand Budapest Hotel. When Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) tells us that Gustave H remained at the hotel but ‘did not succeed at growing old,’ the camera cuts to Fiennes playfully bantering amongst a group of doting admirers, and then zooms in. For a brief moment, we see an actor communicating a range of emotions with his face all in one instant in a manner that has not been seen since the famous shot of Dalio in The Rules of the Game. Fiennes’ face, eyes and mouth manage to instantaneously express a surface contentment with his life of aesthetic refinement while also implying an abiding sadness lurking in the attic of his heart.
And this, indeed, is the overriding sentiment we feel when watching Grand Budapest Hotel: the same sentimental sensation of a silent mourning for a lost, lovely, refined way of life that Renoir’s The Rules of the Game articulated is imparted by Anderson in Grand Budapest Hotel—but without Renoir’s sly social satire. Anderson does not seek to critique or to edify; rather, he seeks—in an almost Wildean sense—to please, and in a Debussy or Satie-esque way, to stir the emotions. This is the effect that the looming darkness and the subtle sadness of Grand Budapest Hotel has on us: it is such a beautifully amusing film, so wonderfully acted, and so carefully designed, that the fact that we know that the refined, sensitive, humanistic pre-war European world it portrayed would soon come to an end fills the mind with tears of tragedy. There is so much lovely melancholy for this enchanting lost world seeping out of Grand Budapest Hotel’s screen that your heart is rended and your spirit weeps when watching it. Like Dalio in Rules of the Game, and like Gustave H in Grand Budapest Hotel, we walk away from Wes Anderson’s wonderful film with a look of pleasurable contentment on our faces for having enjoyed such a charming movie while being unable to conceal the tragic sentimental melancholy we feel floating up from our hearts and invading our souls.