Box-office medalist The Grand Budapest Hotel went nationwide on Friday; Nathan & Tyler made haste in screening up. Herewith, their thoughts.
Tyler: Well, Nathan, I keep trying to write a fanciful lead into this chat, but the pleasures of this film keep popping off like candied distractions when I try to pin one down. So I’ll start instead with this frame, which caught my eye this morning as I pored over a webpile of critical raves.
My first film teacher ever, the esteemed Mr. Dehring, made occasional habit of pausing the VHS tapes we screened in class and muttering “Mm mm mm. Look at that shot.” I think of that here, ’cause mm mm mm, look at that shot. Also, you better believe I want some Mendl’s confections.
Nathan: If you don’t want to go to a good confectionary after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, then there’s something dreadfully wrong with you. But Mendl’s actually serves as a nice way to look at the entire film for me. Those boxes, especially when stacked to the heavens like a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, are infinitely more attractive than the cakes within. (I don’t think this myself, but we all know that there some who view Anderson’s work as “nice packaging.” For them it’s great until you actually unwrap it to see what’s inside.)
I want to swoon and drool over Anderson’s kaleidoscope of interior decorating, but before we do that I’d like to ask what you see when you unwrap this movie. Is it sheer whimsy? It it something more?
Tyler: So much more. Both in the context of Hotel as its own little kaleidoscope, and also in that of Anderson’s entire career. Each of his first five films mined a distinct male melancholy, and the two following were expert tales of adolescence, but the heart of all the effort here is deeper, older, wiser, and wearied by life. We can dance around spoilers for the sake of the crowd, but the toll Hotel takes on its protagonist goes well beyond, say, Max Fischer’s teenage struggles. That’s a reductive way to look at a great movie (Rushmore), one that seeks out and nails down what it wants to do, but, now that he’s assembled this grand motion picture–no pun intended, it is damn grand and it’s appropriate that that word’s in the title–Anderson has opened the door to tantalizing possibilities in whatever work comes next.
And I don’t think any of that would work if the thing weren’t also so damn funny. You could sum it up pretty quick flying in a quote from the movie, the exact words of which I forget. Fiennes, now a god forever thanks to this role, tries to wind up an inspiring sermon in the wake of encountering Edward Norton on a train. The film’s already winked at the amiable puffery of these things, delivered every day to the hotel staff as they tuck into their spartan meals, but in this instance even Gustave H. can’t muster the energy to draw a conclusion other than a drink and mic-drop “Fuck it.” It’s hilarious, yet more than glib.
Nathan: I think you are right and I think Fiennes is the key here. Looking back at all of Anderson’s previous pictures, you can rightly call him a master of ensemble directing. But Grand Budapest is really just about Gustave H. Every other actor that appears – Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adrian Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson, and even a luminous Saoirse Ronan – is really just ornament to hang around Fiennes, whose performance is wickedly funny, impeccably timed, and bitterly graceful. At first I wondered if having so many name-actors was a distraction. But then as I began to warm to the idea that this is a film about a glorious fantasy of a past, it occurred to me that everyone in a world like this should be a character. Which, of course, makes this a perfect Wes Anderson movie. No detail, no fleeting character, is presented to us casually. Each character, even if they are only on screen for a minute, is given enough detail to suggest a life lived way beyond the screen. It’s for this reason that Grand Budapest is a great movie: it’s a singular character study that also allows us the pleasure of many possible lives. This metaphor might be too on-the-nose, but the film almost plays as though the audience is being shown this world with Gustave H. as its own personal concierge. He opens a door, lets you peek inside a room long enough to get a sense of its charms, and then shuts the door in order to move you on to the next wonder.
In short, it’s an exhausting movie. But it’s also a movie that begs to be seen again, and again, and again.
I’m glad that you’ve suggested that Grand Budapest is more mature, at least in its subject matter, than some of Anderson’s previous efforts. I think Grand Budapest offers a nice counterpoint to Moonrise Kingdom, which is a PG-13 romp, and my personal favorite of Anderson’s films. But where in Moonrise Kingdom we are treated only to the fleeting adolescent discovery of an erection during a hug, The Grand Budapest Hotel is crowded full of adult things. There are severed body parts, Mexico-shaped scars that suggest possible abuse, a gunfight that calls to mind the climax of Django Unchained, and a master concierge who has gained his notoriety, at least in part, by fucking old ladies. But my personal favorite adult gag in the film involves a painting of lesbian sex that is gleefully placed in a scene with Léa Seydoux, from the recent lesbian love tragedy Blue is the Warmest Color, as a maid fantastically named Clotilde.
And yet none of those adult trappings keep The Grand Budapest Hotel from being utterly charming, a movie you’d so desperately want to show to a young child.
Tyler: Right? It earns its R-rating by the “rules” of the MPAA, but there’s a whole lot here in which a kid might delight, and take deeper pleasure in unraveling as they get older. It sounds silly, but thinking about this movie at length makes me wish it had its own line of toys. A big tangible Grand Budapest home set could entertain even me at thirty-one for days.
Of course, that sort of wistful nostalgia is exactly what Anderson wants me to feel–perhaps all his films have had that goal, but the effect of Grand Budapest is so palpable, even as it foregrounds the conceit, with its two explicit (story) framing devices and that one decisive (picture) framing choice. You can’t swing a dead cat (heh) without hitting a review that likens this flick to a Russian nesting doll, but it ain’t without good reason. Flying in and reinventing the literary division of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson in Hotel layers onto his central narrative a depiction of observation, creation, and experience that is nothing less than a summary of art itself. The life of Gustave through the words of Zero recalled in the words of The Author, printed on paper and read by a girl on a bench, an audience, us. That all that’s there, and on such proud display, is really a hell of a ballsy move on the part of an auteur who has his serious detractors. That’d be reason to celebrate enough, but the emotions evoked here–they’re real and deep. And placed in history, no less, as ol’ Wes has specified an amorphous pre-Nazi Europe for us. I’m astonished that it all works, and works so damn well. These characters and their fates have stayed on my mind.
And God, it is so funny, isn’t it? The first guffaw on my end (and pretty much that of the packed house where I saw this) came during Tom Wilkinson’s brief early appearance, when a relative of his character makes their presence felt. Just the dumbest little throwaway gag, and it killed. All that shit I said above, yes. This movie is also, though, to phrase in a manner Gustave might approve, fucking uproarious.
Nathan: The nesting structure is astonishing, but I want to take a moment to highlight an idea that Geoffery O’Brien brought up in an excellent piece in the most recent edition of Film Comment. O’Brien notes that Anderson’s movies always take place in the present and harken back to the past. In Tenenbaums everyone is dealing with the blowback of their absentee father, The Darjeeling Limited charts the tourist attempts of three brothers to reconnect after years of separation, Steve Zissou is trying to take revenge on a Jaguar Shark that killed his friend…in the past. And on and on. But Hotel goes further than any of these movies in this regard. It sets itself in the present, but only as a means to get to the past. Once the present gets us to 1932, it leaves us there for almost the entire film. Anderson, it seems, no longer wants to explore what the past is doing to his characters (though we do see Zero in both past and present), but to explore the past itself. It’s contorted to fit Anderson’s own brand of whimsy, of course, but it is the past nonetheless.
What did you think of The Grand Budapest Hotel from a cinephile’s perspective? Like every other Anderson film, it serves as a flip book of cinematic reference points. Where in the past he was mining French New Wave, Hal Ashby, and Orson Welles, here Anderson reveals a deep love for a host of other cinematic guideposts. And since Hotel is so dense, I think it would be easy for every person to see a different group of influences. Anderson himself has mentioned the musical films of Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian’s bewitching 1932 musical Love Me Tonight. Those seem to be right there on the surface when we think about Anderson’s vision of Europia, but I think Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, with its criminal element, might have been on his mind. The sinister quality of Hotel made me think of Fritz Lang a little bit.
What did you see?
Tyler: Anderson and his art director both have mentioned that Goldblum and Dafoe’s museum standoff is a direct lift from Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, for whatever that’s worth; one thing I caught that I haven’t seen others mention is a bit of The Great Dictator, in the logo that directly references the SS, and in the goofball names Anderson assigns his countries. It’s a bit of zaniness that pairs with the Lubitsch touch, which is all over it, harkening to Ninotchka and To Be Or Not To Be, comedic wartime masterpieces both (though I like that you see Paradise in there, as you’re right and that movie is excellent). Keeping in that vein, though it’s an odd combination to say aloud, the ski/sled/luge sequence to me is like a Bond movie by way of Charles Schultz. Sublime farcical nonsense.
That’s the thing, though–trying to tie together these influences leads me to a conclusion I very much like. A breakdown of just about any given sequence in The Grand Budapest Hotel could inspire a Santa’s-list of cinematic titans and cultural iconoclasts. (I remain convinced that there’s an oblique Zabriskie Point reference when Gustave and Zero are at their meeting point in the mountains.) How they coalesce, though: pure Wes Anderson. I don’t want to rewrite the scope of the man’s oeuvre without proper time, not least while he’s still working, but this one really does feel like a giant leap forward, for reasons we’ve gotten into here, reasons we’ve missed but others won’t, and maybe just good old maturity clicking some artistic tumblers into place for a filmmaker whose sense of self-assurance, however righteous, did have an idle air. “What’s gonna be his real masterpiece?” or some such.
I hesitate to throw that word at Hotel (or most things), but it’s a bloody exceptional work. I would not be surprised if in a few years some of us are calling it Anderson’s best.
Am I forgetting a huge must-note element here? Man, untangling this dollhouse could take days and years. I love it. I want to see this movie just like you put it: again and again and again.
Nathan: It’s too early to try to figure out if this is Anderson’s best. Time will tell that to us. But through eight feature films Anderson has been so consistent, both in style and in quality, that picking a “best” might be as simple as drawing a title out of a hat. I’d be disappointed if I drew Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic, or Mr. Fox, but otherwise I wouldn’t raise a stink to the claim that any of his other films are his best. Right now I’d have to go with The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. Those two films, with families broken by divorce and runaway children, speak more directly to me on an emotional level. But you can make a case for The Grand Budapest Hotel on the intricacy of the design alone. It is an assault on our senses and it’s only 97 minutes long. It leaves you no room to breathe or think. And it is extraordinary. It’s films like Hotel that DVDs were made for. When it is finally out on video we’re all going to buy it and pause it just to study each set-up. Mise-en-scene has never been so good.
Tyler: DVD? I wanna see this bad boy splayed out to Blu-ray levels on a big-ass flatscreen. I don’t say that often–for me the theater’s the thing, ha ha–but the digital gloss of modern home viewing might put a vivid twist on this flick in particular. One way or another, physical copy or streamer of the moment, I’ll be checking back in to this Hotel.
That was shameful. Here’s some more Wes Anderson. Go see this movie, everybody in the world.