Jen Krueger: Checking in to The Grand Budapest Hotel
Sometimes living in L.A. has great perks, and one of the most recent I’ve enjoyed is the fact that of the four theaters in the U.S. that had The Grand Budapest Hotel on limited release this past weekend, one was just a few blocks from my apartment. I know Wes Anderson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as someone who’s been a fan of his films for more than a decade, I find myself increasingly annoyed by the most frequent criticism of his work: he’s making the same movie over and over again. The most common things cited to support this complaint are the look and themes of his films, but I don’t find either of these to be valid arguments.
Usually, an individual cinematic style is considered the mark of an auteur. Spike Jonze, Stanley Kubrick, and Baz Luhrmann all have a consistent “look” found through their filmographies, but it’s far less common for their visuals to be dismissed as repetitive than it is for Anderson’s. While I wouldn’t get into an argument over which of these filmmakers has the best visual style, I would say that Anderson has the most cohesive one, and it’s this cohesion that people misinterpret as repetition. Instead of applying his style to a series of disparate time periods and locations (real or fictional) as Jonze, Kubrick, and Luhrmann have, it seems to me that all of Anderson’s movies take place within a single fictional world of story. Rather than draping his visual style over unrelated tales, he’s showing how crime, school, the city, the sea, India, animation, childhood, and pre-war Europe look in the Anderson-verse.
But even people who agree that Anderson’s cultivated a single world in which his movies take place sometimes complain he’s only telling a single story in that world. And sure, fraught family relationships and dissatisfaction with one’s place in the world are recurring elements in the movies Anderson’s made, but making this observation is no different than saying Ernest Hemingway wrote often about what it means to be a man, J.G. Ballard had a taste for near-dystopian societies, or Philip K. Dick was way into LSD. Since Hemingway, Ballard, and Dick aren’t thought of as rehashing a single narrative just because things that preoccupied them are present in all of their work, I don’t see why Anderson’s preoccupations should overshadow the fact that there are different themes to be found in each of his movies. After all, [[[Bottle Rocket]]] is about friendship, [[[Rushmore]]] is about wanting to skip youth for maturity, The Royal Tenenbaums is about pining for lost youth, [[[The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou]]] is about obsolescence, The Darjeeling Limited is about loss, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about responsibility (and accepting it even when you don’t want to), and [[[Moonrise Kingdom]]] is about childhood.
But for anybody rigidly convinced that Wes Anderson only has one thing to say, The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the best argument to the contrary, because it shows audiences several completely new elements of the Anderson-verse. Profanity has rarely been depicted in the world of Anderson’s films, and when utilized in the past, it’s primarily voiced by characters using it as a measured and conscious word choice. In The Grand Budapest Hotel though, profanity is an uncontrollable response to events unsettling the characters, making it a frequent occurrence as characters’ guards often slip down in the face of surprise. A good deal of this surprise comes as the result of another new element to the Anderson-verse: violence. Physical harm and even bloodshed have of course been part of his other movies, but accidents, self-inflicted wounds, and scuffles between family or friends pale in comparison to the deliberate and graphic violence in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Of course, even “graphic” is approached in a uniquely Wes Anderson way, so there’s no undue gore to contend with. But for the world of Anderson’s films, the violence shown is so beyond anything he’s done before that it’s shocking.
Ultimately though, it’s what The Grand Budapest Hotel is about that makes it so singular amongst Anderson’s work. This is a movie about mentors and proteges, making your own family when you don’t have a biological one, and above all else, the importance of storytelling. A man taking a boy under his wing to groom him professionally blossoms into a rich father-son-esque relationship as the protagonists consciously shape the narratives of their lives, which are so intertwined that they can later be told as a single tale to an author within the movie. Sure, there are familiar factors at play like crime and love and friendship and loss, but the telling of the story in the movie is paramount because it lets everyone who hears it share at least a small part of those things the protagonists so vividly experience. In the end, it isn’t at all difficult to see why Anderson set this tale in a hotel. More than any of his other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel made me a guest in Wes Anderson’s world, and checking out as the credits rolled just made me pine for my next visit.