When The Grand Budapest Hotel opened last weekend, Husband and I missed it. It was only playing in one theatre and it sold out. (Get your shit together, Vancouver.)
One week on, even with a wider release, we barely squeezed into the theatre.
Casting glances around to our fellow movie-goers, I realized that the stereotype of the bespectacled, cardigan-ed Wes Anderson fan isn’t true at all. Every demographic was there: from child to senior, with every Millenial, Gen-X, and Boomer in between. My parents even like Wes Anderson movies even though I suspect they’ve never discovered they are all by the same guy.
Last night’s viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel wasn’t the usual Friday night blockbuster experience. This film managed to have the varied population of Coquitlam in the palm of its hand. You could hear and feel the audience’s presence the whole time: not just laughter, but gasps, cheers, held breath, and the absence of muttering, talking, and rustling.
Something I suspected after Moonrise Kingdom was confirmed last night: were I to rank Wes Anderson films in order from my least to most favourite, they would run in chronological order. To me, he keeps getting better and better.
Wes Anderson’s skills as a filmmaker have never been in question; from the beginning, his films have always been polished and cohesive with a clear vision. His work is a fascinating conversation with the act of storytelling itself. This conversation has only grown and deepened over time.
The key component of his work has been a wistful sense of nostalgia and how it colours rose the stories we tell. This manifests on screen in everything from his use of title cards to sun-faded and old-fashioned colour palettes to his characteristic shot structure: everything framed centre, dolly shots from side-to-side, all giving the screen the feeling of a diorama.
We, the viewers, are detached from the narrative; we are explicitly watching a performance. We are watching a contrived, universal Past: one bordering fantasy, free of historical specifics and proper nouns. We get Steve Zissou, not Jacques Cousteau. We get Khaki Scouts, not Boy Scouts.
Anderson’s films have always engaged the past with the future in a dialectic, most often in inter-generational conflict. The idealism of youth has always both conflicted with and complemented the idealism of adulthood (best exemplified in the competition between Max and Blume in Rushmore).
The Grand Budapest Hotel turns these tropes into self-reflexivity. The story is framed by a frame, framed by a frame, framed by a frame: a girl is reading a book, the author is telling the story, the author is being told the story, the story is actually happening.
Where the engagement with a vague, idealized history has always served a stylistic purpose as part of a heightened reality, here it is explicit and thematically important.
The core of the film is Gustave’s (an excellent Ralph Fiennes) ardent belief in an historic point of perfection. His entire aim with the Grand Budapest Hotel is to capture this ideal (and ultimately nonexistent) moment in history.
But within there are obvious repressed horrors.
The lobby boy, Zero, speaks of the war in his own past, that killed his family and made him a refugee, and of the war to come (territories will be occupied, many will die) as though they were a footnote or even a punchline.
There is a sobering disconnect between the goofy, madcap humour of the story as it unfolds and the solemnity with which F. Murray Abraham tells it. Ultimately, it seems, there are some things too painful to tell stories about. It is Zero’s omissions and Gustave’s nostalgia that reshape history into the narrative we all know.
Anderson thus engages with his familiar tropes on a new level: The Grand Budapest Hotel deepens from his previous work in that it makes explicit reference to what has been left out and why.
This is why The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favourite Wes Anderson movie. At least so far.