I don't know when, but at some point watching The Grand Budapest Hotel — maybe during a cleverly shot chase scene down an alpine ski course, maybe agog in the thrill of one gorgeous set-design piece after another — I realized Wes Anderson has surpassed the Coen Brothers, in my estimation.
I've loved the Coens forever and Anderson forever and for many of the same reasons: control of the method of storytelling, reliance on a troupe of actors, rich situational comedy, and dialogue-driven scenarios. Each hit a relatively fallow creative period where they lapsed into self-caricature: the Coen Brothers with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, Anderson with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. And, each stormed back with a revival of that old blood, the Coens with No Country for Old Men and Anderson with Fantastic Mr. Fox.
I've always preferred the manic unpredictability of a Coen Brothers film to Anderson's carefully considered artistic schema. But, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson enunciates his style with such clarity and wit, he effectively enhances his filmography retroactively.
The film starts with the Author (Tom Wilkinson), a famed luminary of letters who penned the beloved book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The writer is a "national treasure" of the Former Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional Central European country akin to Austria or Hungary, or maybe just the idea of Central Europe in general. The Author muses on where the inspiration for his story came from — contemplating that most common of questions asked of writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" The Author argues that the stories are out there, that characters and events are in view all the time and that a careful observer will be open to recognizing them. Case in point, the Author recalls how he wrote The Grand Budapest Hotel when he, as a young man (played by Jude Law) in 1968, visited the celebrated, titular locale. There, he met the building's owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who proceeded to reveal how he came to take possession of the hotel, a wild, improbable story that the Author insists he could not have made up.
It's a curious and deliberate way to begin, as if Anderson is saying that he's not the pure Sarrisian "auteur" (a term which, of course, translates as "author") there's every bit of evidence he is. Just take one look at the visual and thematic consistency from Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom (Bottle Rocket is a developmental outlier, however lovely it is) and can there be any doubt? And yet, Anderson deflects the attempt to ascribe his films' personalities to himself. After all, the Author is a stand-in for Stefan Zweig, the famous Viennese writer of the early-mid 20th century, who Anderson credits for inspiration for the film.
I suspect it's all a light jest, because the film that follows the sidestep could not have been created by anyone but Anderson, Zweig be damned.
The main part of the plot takes place in 1932, at the height of the charismatic powers of the Grand Budapest. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is the concierge and very lifeblood of the hotel. He runs a tight ship to ensure the guests' comfort — and many of the wealthy visitors come to the hotel just for Gustave and his physical abilities. The young Zero (Tony Revolori) applies for a job, even though he has no work experience, education, or family. His sober appreciation of Gustave wins him the position, though, and through him we see the concierge in full: commanding, gracious, witty, carnal, romantic, poetic, ridiculous. He wears L'Air de Panache Pure Musk, a cloud of it announcing places he has just been.
Gustave might be the best Anderson creation yet, and, honestly, it might be Fiennes' best performance. Zero is another of those precocious kids aping grown-ups Anderson appreciates so much. The pairing with Zero is the heart of the film, and considerably endearing — cut of the same cloth as Herman Blume and Max Fischer.
When Gustave's lover, the Countess Dowager (Tilda Swinton) dies, the will is read, a broad range of characters are introduced (my favorite is Jopling, the family tough replete with skulls-head brass knuckles and a bulldog-fang underbite, played by Willem Dafoe), and the action is set into motion.
Moonrise Kingdom perfected and literalized Anderson's nostalgia/longing for childhood adventure. The Grand Budapest Hotel perfects and literalizes his sense of the madcap. The film contains several very long and elaborate sequences that underscore the pretense of what he's doing. In one, a prison break is an impossible caper. In another, Gustave and Zero must perform a drawn-out, repetitive series of tasks to rendezvous with a key figure in hiding.
The logistics of neither plan are necessary, but then, nothing Anderson does is strictly or antiseptically necessary. The same can be said for Anderson's rigorous visual symmetry and dollhouse aesthetic. Unnecessary, but it's immeasurably enjoyable.
All art is made up. One aspect of Anderson's genius — never more present than in The Grand Budapest Hotel — has been in showing that artifice, to take one single step back to show the perfect framing of the action and then to enchant us anyway.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Opens Friday, March 21st
Ridgeway Cinema Grill