It’s a fact of life that we always approach the past from a fixed point of departure. We are never truly able to experience it. It’s either a visit to an old ruin, a reverie inspired from a book, a memory of a meeting with an interesting stranger and that stranger’s own memory of his past. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about the past, about history that shows this impossible distance, this distances which ultimately becomes the true subject of this film. This notion of distance, of how remote we are from the narrative of past, from memory, is built into an emotional effect that cascades with, as one character puts it, with “a marvelous grace”.
The cascade is a recurring motif in The Grand Budapest Hotel where the hotel is established at the top of a hill accessible from a Funicular Light Railway, the recurring use of staircases, the sloping climb up alpine mountains via mountain trails and finally descent via the best ski sequence in recent memory. The narrative cascades from a girl in a graveyard confronting a statue of a writer and one of his books she reads, from there we move to the writer (Tom Wilkinson) who writes in his domain while dealing with his annoying son, an interruption that becomes part of the storytelling. From there we shift to the younger writer (Jude Law) who arrives in The Grand Budapest Hotel and encounters the hotel at its lowest point and from here time flows back to its glory days via an encounter with the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, sublime) to his younger self (Tony Revolori).
This narrative structure calls to mind films by Sacha Guitry, especially Le roman d’un tricheur and Les perles de la couronne. The famous French dramatist-comedian-satirist (never certain what to peg him as) is also a visual inspiration for M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes-awesome) the impeccably elegant dandy, a seducer of old women, a connoisseur of values and professional discipline and unexpectedly, a thoroughly good human being. Like Guitry in his films, Gustave is a participant-observer, a performer who is fully aware that he is performing who likes to entice audiences in his little secrets and who enjoys his game of deceits with someone who knows and recognizes the game and plays along excitedly. While Gustave never quite addresses the camera and audience the way Sacha Guitry did, with that famous extended take of his careful manipulations in minute detail in Faisons d’un rêve, he plays it off with his beloved young charge Zero, who like so many Anderson characters becomes surrogate-brother and surrogate-son but never entirely one or the other.
The landscape of Zubrowska is a cascade of accumulated references of literary and cinematic references, chiefly that of author Stefan Zweig, who wrote the stories that informed Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman and whose book The World of Yesterday described a Pre-WW1 world where one could travel across Europe without a passport. This becomes a theme when Gustave tries to convince ticket checkers, a tragic echo of The Darjeeling Limited that he doesn’t need papers and can get by because a young police officer (Edward Norton) whose mother was a guest at the Grand Budapest knew Monsieur Gustave well. This is also the world of Lubitsch, always a constant touchstone for Anderson, Renoir and even Resnais (not only Stavisky but also Marienbad) with references to Suspiria and Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers also hovering over the narrative.
This invented landscape created around clustered recreations from films and literature is not as some claim an attempt at hollow nostalgia of a pre-genocide Europe, it is Wes Anderson’s point of departure and how he approaches the distance from his position and the world of Zweig and Ophuls. In creating this world, he acknowledges and celebrates its artifice and construction with loving detail chiefly in the shift in aspect ratios, a coup de cinéma that moves from 1:85 to CinemaScope and then to the much neglected Academy Ratio of 1:33 used in the films of Lubitsch, Stroheim and Guitry – the square so believed of Orson Welles that gave actors height instead of width and made a close-up loom large. This is apparent in our first glimpse of Gustave, first on the back than a cut to the side as he steps forward in his conversation with Tilda Swinton’s Madame D, their faces looming tall.
What lifts it from this range of references is the force with which it celebrates the family of professional discipline. The hotel staff and the small quarters they inhabit, the chain of master-apprentice of Concierge-Lobby Boy, the hierarchy binds rather than separates. In this the film is much like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. There’s much attention paid to maintain standards with even temporary replacements dealt with skepticism. The professional ties involves a secret society of concierges that functions as a final resort for Gustave H. The montage showing the Society of Crossed Keys, apparently a real-life secret-society is one of the funniest moments in all of Anderson involving perfect cameos by Bill Murray and Warris Ahluwalia. The film at times is a gallery of perfect cameos – Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel – all of whom are perfect and wonderful in their presences.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the first real Wes Anderson with villains – Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe – and the villains are as funny and ridiculous as they are threatening and absurd. Willem Dafoe is about the only actor who can make the willful and spiteful murder of a cat into a bizarre comic gag. The humour of these vile characters differentiates them from the true villains, the armies that use the Grand Budapest and convert it into an army camp, invading the space of elegance and civility that had been Gustave’s life. They make a final appearance later on, as the more humourless and implacable quasi-Nazis that are ready to march across Europe.
At the centre of the film though is Monsieur Gustave, a character who is an expert dissembler and perhaps the first time Wes Anderson has created a genuine tragic figure. Gustave never tells anyone about his background or his upbringing, he bonds with Zero Moustafa and tells him that he was once a lobby boy but throughout the film he sleeps alone in a small quarter by himself. His vitality, his treasured assignations with elderly women and occasional dalliances with men, hints at a flexibility and an embrace of life’s complexity. The film’s old-fashioned approach to storytelling provides many hints. Namely the fact that Edward Norton’s sympathetic police officer is most likely Gustave’s son with one of his former partners and that given the context of the film and Gustave’s sense of real and imagined persecution, he’s likely an assimilated Jew clinging to a recreation of the trappings of culture that had already passed him by, becoming an embodiment of the Belle Epoque, over long before he arrived on the scene. In that he embodies Wes Anderson, much as Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson’s writer character embodies other aspects of the artist, the artist not as autobiographer but a gatherer of narratives which they then recreate years after their own memory had failed them.