If you’ve seen Wes Anderson’s 2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel, you’ll likely recall its ensemble cast and Ralph Fiennes’ stellar performance as a concierge. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lot heavier than the comedy it appears to be at face value. Anderson’s film won four Oscars from myriad nominations and was unanimously well-received by critics, to the point that it was ranked 21st on BBC’s “100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century” list.
The Grand Budapest Hotel presents an emphatically artificial world that’s ornately dressed with shiny embellishments and glossy textures. However, its aesthetic serves a grander function than to simply be visually pleasing. In his essay ‘Transcendences and Multiple Realities,’ Austrian philosopher Alfred Schutz writes that by “relaxing into laughter, if, in listening to a joke, we are for a short time ready to accept the fictitious world of the jest as a reality in relation to which the world of our daily lives takes on the character of foolishness.”
This is what The Grand Budapest Hotel does best. Ralph Fiennes’ razor sharp wit and the emphatically “fictitious world of the jest” function in such a way that we are invited into the film world, with its absurdity being temporarily understood as actual logic and the real world in which we are watching the film from becoming subordinate. The artificial aesthetic demands attention—and rightfully so, as it has quite an important message to deliver.
The Grand Budapest Hotel curates the history of film. The hotel itself is a metaphor for this history, as Moustafa, the lobby boy-cum-concierge, is reluctant to let go of the eponymous hotel, even after it falls on dark days amidst a grave war. In the same way, Anderson retains practices and values that are inherent to traditional cinema. For instance, the depiction of 20th Century Eastern Europe in the film is achieved by means that are very much in alignment with traditional Hollywood. The stunning backdrops and props are vivid and self-important, as the entire on-screen ensemble at any given time is perpetually in competition with itself, each constituent part attempting to assert its presence amidst the cacophony of clashing egos.
Homage in Miniature
Panoramic shots of the hotel itself were achieved by using a 10 ft miniature, as opposed to being computer-generated or of an actual building. Despite the fact that Anderson had an arsenal of new-age toys to play with, he opted to employ the stratagem of Hitchcock and Chaplin. The key was in making the artifice emphatically artificial, as opposed to embarking on a wild goose chase with realism that would be detrimental to the film’s essence.
This old-fashioned way of achieving a structured artifice is something that Anderson is well known for, as Fantastic Mr. Fox also made use of miniatures and hand-painted backdrops. Anderson’s decision to employ the crafting mechanisms used to construct classic movies in traditional cinema can be juxtaposed with The Grand Budapest Hotel’s contemporarily gorgeous aesthetic in order to shape the idea that there is a place for traditional filmmaking in modern cinema.
While The Grand Budapest Hotels pays direct homage to many of its cinematic predecessors, it never ceases to be confident in itself. It curates old-cinema tropes and devices, but makes its identity as curator known above all else. These mechanisms are on display, but only because someone gathered them and arranged them beforehand.
The elegance of The Grand Budapest Hotel is therefore imbued in the artificial structures upon which it is built, as opposed to being visible solely in the thin aesthetic layer which seems to be almost hand-painted atop the silver screen. The film itself is the embodiment of traditional cinematics in the 21st Century, as it seeks not only to preserve the styles of old Hollywood, but to reappropriate them into new forms. It seems to say, “these are the tenets upon which filmmaking was originally built, so why have we decided to leave them in the past to rot?”
There are some aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel which perhaps would be better left in the past, though. For instance, Anderson’s casting of Fiennes as the silver-tongued bachelor concierge is directly juxtaposed with the casting of other characters based on their ethnic backgrounds—something Anderson does quite regularly. Regarded by some as an experimental filmmaking technique, this is, in reality, an action that feeds on fetishized exoticism.
The Grand Budapest Hotel does a lot of things right, but Anderson’s insistence on setting the film in the fictional and stereotypically war-torn Zubrowska in which a troupe of Eastern European clichés serve as the story’s antagonistic force is not among them. His most recent film, Isle of Dogs, retained these practices, although Anderson seems to have consciously rethought his approach to them, as the things that are othered in isle of Dogs—such as untranslated dialogue—seem to serve at least some purpose in the narrative.
A Case for the Classics
Most people will enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s also important to recognize the fact that this enjoyment proves its point. There is a place for traditional filmmaking in modern cinema and employing old-school techniques won’t compromise a film’s commercial and critical potential if the film itself is actually good.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wild ride, as the Fiennes-Anderson deadly duo hurtle headlong through a frenzied hubbub of sobs, laughs, and moustached quips. The absurdist narrative features murder, railway getaways, and maximum security prison breaks. It’s a beautiful and messy visual world that is at all times assertive of the fact that it knows you’re enjoying it.
With an almighty riposte toward the idea that contemporary feature films need to rely on computer-generated-imagery and explosive warscapes, The Grand Budapest Hotel wears lavish jewelry, flaunting its status as a film of culture, yet at all times being ready to offer a tongue-in-cheek remark with a wink and a smirk. It’s ostentatious in a way that you can’t help but enjoy—and that’s the point. Every single thing about it screams old-Hollywood, yet everything from the costumes and makeup to the set design is dressed to impress.
At the end of the film, the girl who originally finds the book by The Author who interviewed the hotel’s concierge, Moustafa, continues to read the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a way, this is the film’s way of attesting to its own legacy, as well as the legacy of traditional film contained within it. With a bold and daring flourish, Wes Anderson shows why the history of film is important to preserve, to reappropriate, and to carry with us as we bound onward into the future of cinema.