By Leslie Combemale aka Cinema Siren
Wes Anderson should really be announced as the poster model for the world’s most positive representation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Those of you who worship at the auteur altar of the director, who have long embraced his fastidious, meticulous style of studied nostalgia and to-the-inch symmetrical specificity, need no prodding. You have long awaited the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and will be stepping out to the nearest art house theater this weekend to see his latest and, this critic would say, greatest addition to his directorial oeuvre.
His new film adds acting colossus Ralph Fiennes to his thespian family as M. Gustave, playing the expert concierge and man in charge at the hotel of the title. It also features a veritable cavalcade of indie acting heavyweights breezing in and out of his tightly controlled camera shots, including other Anderson film newbies F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, and Saoirse Ronan as well as regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton as various chess pieces in this murder mystery.
However short their screen time may be, they all play essential parts of the story. Young actor Tony Revolori meets the challenge of playing the supporting role of Zero, the lobby boy and constant shadow to the older more experienced hotelier. He helps his new role model in all ways possible after Gustave is accused of murdering one of the many aged and moneyed lady friends he, shall we say, “services.”
The story is told by a never-named narrator simply called “The Author.” When interviewed in 1985, he takes the audience back to several eras, one in the early '30s, the other in the mid '60s. The first is at the height of the hotel’s glory, when the murder takes place; the second is as the hotel is in steep decline. There is a lightness and immense flamboyance making up the surface of the story, but a depth and darkness under it with bad family blood, thinly veiled representations of Nazis, assassins and death squads.
For each of the three time periods represented, a different aspect ratio is used, so the viewer can more easily identify the moment in time, but also because each aspect articulates a different time in film history (aspect ratio refers to the proportion of a movie’s width to its height). The earliest time has the Academy ratio (1.37:1) which is more square, but was used for movies starting in 1932. The second is for the '60s era, and is done in the way films were released starting in 1953, which is more widescreen (2.35:1). The third is more or less present day of 1985, and is filmed as we see movies now…(1.85.1).
Visually, the film calls to mind the many aspects of Old World splendor such as those captured in the sets of Busby Berkeley films or Fred and Ginger, or the Grand Hotel from Edmund Goulding’s 1932 classic film of the same name. But it shows, in equal measure, the faded glory of the locales as time leaves such grandiosity and deliberate manners behind to be mourned by those who romanticize and glorify those places and experiences in their memories. The question just below the surface is: “Did this grandeur ever truly exist, or is it largely invention formed of nostalgia and selective memory?”
M. Gustave is clearly a stand-in for director Anderson. Gustave, with his cavorting with elder blondes, and his liberal use of the word “darling” and the cologne called “L ’Air de Panache,” stubbornly holds to a perception of how life should be, a savoir faire, even as he knows in each moment it is something he is superimposing or placing on top of a world that might not be quite as “rose scented.”
There is a decided optimism, a desire to approach all experiences with grace, that Gustave shares with the director that shepherds him through the film. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson builds what amounts to a monument or castle of nostalgia to the way things could or should be. The hotel as filmed is magnificent enough to make anyone wish for a bygone era when such things as personalized service, lavender-scented talcum powder and restorative baths existed.
Certainly he is aware of the hardships that must be overcome in life, as they forever lurk in the background. Wes Anderson, and fans of his work, however, choose to see or imagine a world worthy of being missed, even if that world may never have existed. It is telling and perhaps amusingly metaphoric that Anderson commissioned a perfumer to actually create “L’Air de Panache,” but one can only experience the scent at the Parisian boutique. It cannot be bought for any price.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, more than any of his films to date, Anderson uses his symmetrical shots, highly accessorized set designs and stylized color palettes to comfort the viewer and create a sense of exalted nostalgia full of refinement and elegance. Everything anyone might expect from a Wes Anderson movie is present, including rapid-fire dialogue full of humor, convoluted plot lines, quirky but well-defined characterization and deeper emotional truths about loneliness, longing and chosen optimism laying under the surface.
Consummate movie poster artist and friend John Alvin used to say of his work (which included the evocative posters for ET and The Lion King), that he was visually trying to creating “the promise of a great experience.” In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson seems to want to create the same kind of visual optimism not only in every frame, but also to plant it in the collective memory of his audience. If he keeps making movies like this one, he may achieve his aim.
99 minutes, rated "R"
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado who aspires to get more people back into the beautiful alternate worlds offered in the dark at movie houses across the country, and is owner of ArtInsights Animation and Film Art Gallery. She interviews actors, directors, and production artists from all over the world, and often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist and host for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster, Classic Film History, Disney & Harry Potter Fandom discussions. Visit her art gallery for great art from film at
www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on