Note: assume spoilers.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an admirable example of what a Wes Anderson film could be—satirically self-reflective, minutely orchestrated, and firmly supported by aesthetic strengths without overwhelming the subtleties of the film’s plot and characters.
Why I like Budapest is most evident through why I didn’t like Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom. Though the plot of the latter—two outcast children finding each other and running away together—matches the Anderson aesthetic well enough, the story is removed from any reality aside from finding your dream person and being with that person against all odds (arguably to a destructive point of self-involvement). In Moonrise, we approach the quixotic limit of idealism and naïveté through Sam and Suzy; it’s a strange reversal of Don Quixote’s original story, where the irrational romanticism is found in an eccentric adult. Making Sam and Suzy the primary vehicles of this idealism, in contrast with Anderson’s failed adult characters, who are either resigned, isolated, trapped as supervisors to their younger counterparts, or some combination of these traits, suggests that a similar fate will befall Sam and Suzy and their relationship.
Moonrise, in focusing on their adult-like child protagonists, is trapped in a childhood nostalgia, an arrested development that is likely mirrored in Anderson’s primary audience: millennial twentysomethings (myself included) whose only break comes in occasional lapses of complete and utter aesthetic removal, purposefully unattached to a world of limited economic options and social mobility. The outcome of Moonrise does its audience two disservices: it further alienates jaded viewers from the possibility of its ideals—fate, coincidence, the simple elegance of the world colluding into certain answers—and panders to others’ desire to believe in them. This critique excludes the socioeconomic inequalities that create the latter disposition; inequalities that are beautifully erased from Anderson’s dreamy sets.
Budapest differs from Moonrise with a more fitting story, better use of literary technique, and marked self-awareness. We drift gradually with Anderson into nostalgia: a girl visits a cemetery to pay tribute to a dead author, whose book, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was written from a story told to him one night at the location of the same name. In three short scenes, we jump from the present to the near past to the far past (1932). We encounter M. Gustave H., the flawed and charismatic concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, who lives for a world even further in the past; a world that has already disappeared, even in his time. Anderson’s elaborate sets, once plush detailing to thinner stories, blend in naturally to the grand hotel and its Old World denizens and staff. Through his severe and detailed watch at the hotel and frequent recitations of romantic poetry, Gustave repaints this world frame by frame, even at his last moments when he attempts to save Zero from another run-in with the army. His power, realized only in the illusion he’s created, disappears by no coincidence at that symbol for destruction: war. Throughout the film, Gustave finds his criticisms towards Zero rebutted with matter-of-fact recollections of Zero’s experience as a refugee, another fact that pulls at the threads of Gustave (and Anderson)’s perfectly constructed sets.
As mentioned elsewhere, M. Gustave H. is a thinly-veiled depiction of Anderson himself, a man lost in his own time whose quixotisms earn him nothing but their inevitable and ill-fated demise. But unlike the protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, we see Gustave and Zero’s futures through the frame-narratives set in motion at the film’s beginning. The Grand Budapest Hotel neither exalts nor belittles Gustave as he is. Rather, it serves as a faithful transcription of how Gustave tries to bring into the world a perfection that Moonrise Kingdom assumes. It’s an important distinction; one that brings its viewers to think, rather than critique, what a world without such generative quixotisms might look like. Like the Man of La Mancha, must all like M. Gustave H. be cured of their insanities or disappear, and what will we miss if we do?