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Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: A Vivid Self-Portrait

Press Play By Kayleigh Butera | Press Play March 7, 2014 at 1:30PM

Wes Anderson’s latest creation is an exquisite expression of his style and, perhaps, of his own character too.
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Last week, as I watched director Wes Anderson take the stage at Lincoln Center to introduce the premiere of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was struck by the unusual deep-purple color of his suit. I almost wrote this off as an inconsequential choice by the famously quirky director. But once the film began rolling, I realized that Anderson’s colorful attire was actually his subtle synchronization with the film’s leading character, Monsieur Gustave H. This character dons the same shade of plum throughout the entire film, and soon I couldn’t help but see that the similarities between the two went far beyond their purple garb. The fascinating parallels between Anderson and his leading man make this film his most soulful and self-reflective work to date.

Anderson’s exploration of this delightful character gives us a rare glimpse into how the director views his own world. Gustave (luminously played by Ralph Fiennes) is the owner of the titular hotel, and his mission is not unlike Anderson’s as he strives to preserve the particular charms of a world that is slipping away. Both the director and his fictive concierge create intricate but impossible worlds in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in the fictional Eastern European state of Zubrowka, this pink wedding cake of a hotel is at its peak of grandeur. Gustave directs the Grand Budapest so that it runs like clockwork, working to maintain its splendor before it fades and falls with the oncoming war.

With idiosyncratic fervor, Gustave—like Anderson—tries to preserve his whimsical tastes despite the realities around him. We watch Gustave speed through the halls, fastidious in his duties, upholding comically high standards. One can imagine a similar eccentricity in Anderson’s creative work, requiring exquisite attention to detail and everything just so. Indeed, actors from Anderson’s veteran cast have described the director’s meticulous production methods as genius, beginning with his own detailed sketches, animations, and even a suggested reading list for the cast.

It is hard not to see Anderson as a sort of innkeeper himself, directing life on and off the set with the same spirit and extravagant standards as Monsieur Gustave H. In a recent interview, cast member Jeff Goldblum explained how Anderson’s visionary style pervades the entire production experience. The director, Goldblum said, “wants to make the shooting an art project of itself.” He described how the entire cast lived together in the same hotel during shooting and sat down each night for group dinners, elaborately arranged by Anderson. This custom aligns so perfectly with the ethos of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and seems to be a striking union of character and creator for Anderson.

There is a similarity between the two, as both Gustave and Anderson hold tightly to their peculiar visions of the world. For Gustave, this vision is the strange splendor of the Budapest in the face of an oncoming war. And for Anderson, it is the intricate styling of his own filmmaking, which stands alone in cinema today. Critics often accuse Anderson of prioritizing his stylized design over substance, but this film is a sweet exception to this charge. Visually, The Grand Budapest Hotel is as fantastical and charming as ever. But the story also reaches new depths, with Anderson articulating themes that are richer and more complex than his earlier works.

Some of that added complexity comes from the darker and more realistic forces at work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. In past works such as Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, the opposing powers take the form of adult authorities. These professors, parents, and scout leaders may clash with the protagonists, but they are hardly villainous. This latest film, however, deals with war, brutality, and a fictional “ZZ” unit that unsubtly recalls Nazi Germany’s SS. The violence is harsher and the darkness comes closer than usual for Anderson.

The effect of these forces' encroachment on the playful world of the Budapest is a richer story—still the fanciful world of Wes Anderson, but one that occasionally snaps the characters back into a meaningful reality. In the same vein, the character of Gustave is not simply a caricature. He too comes to life with moments of unfeigned grace. We learn that Gustave is more genuine and deeply relatable than the shiny purple tuxedo would initially let on.  

One of these endearing traits is his habit of reciting romantic poetry at length. This meaningful quirk turns out to be representative of Gustave’s character and, more significantly, of Anderson’s entire method. As it happens, Gustave consistently chooses the wrong moment to pause for poetry. He begins forty-stanza poem before dinner, a dramatic ode while escaping a maximum-security prison, never able to finish his verses. It is a comical pattern throughout the film, and a fitting one: art interrupted by a more urgent reality. Anderson portrays exactly this—a world where there is less and less time for romance, beauty, and whimsy. In spite of this reality, one man—be it Gustave or Anderson himself—works tirelessly to uphold the old elegance.

We cannot know how much of himself Anderson projected onto his leading man, but the resulting film is a triumph. Anderson is true to his own narrative techniques, and the purple threads that tie him to Gustave only enrich this: he delves deeper yet into style and substance, putting a little more of himself into his film.

Kayleigh Butera is a writer from Philadephia, PA. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied American Studies and French language. She worked as the programming coordinator of Brown's Ivy Film Festival, the world's largest student-run film fest. Kayleigh is currently living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at kayleigh.butera@gmail.com.

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