grand budapest hotel

I’m pretty sure it’s normal to assume that your own connection to a particular artist is special, different in some way. When, of course, the reality is that you are far from unique in your focused adoration.

I was hooked the very first time I watched Bottle Rocket. I knew nothing in advance about the movie or its director. I certainly did not realize that it was his directorial debut. I’m now thoroughly convinced that ignorance is the perfect platform for discovery.

I came away from that initial viewing a dedicated and determined Wes Anderson fan. There was a wonderful energy to Bottle Rocket – but more importantly, to someone given to strong OCD tendencies – it was a fantastically organized energy. The pacing, the music, the characters all appeared chaotic, and yet, each element was so carefully constructed, so meticulously mapped.

This beautiful mapping of character and plot only blossomed in Anderson’s subsequent films – Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums – both more fully-realized and mature than his debut effort. Each of these elaborate worlds seemed trapped in its own particular fantasy – none of them identical or quite real – and certainly none of them wholly modern.

Eventually, I experienced a falling-out of sorts – The Life Aquatic was quirky and cute, but the skewed fairy tale worlds Anderson created began to feel a bit strained and familiar. I found myself starting to understand the critics who all along had believed his work to prioritize style over substance. The Darjeeling Limited only exacerbated the issue. This time, it wasn’t just rote – it was annoying.

The animated Fantastic Mr. Fox provided hope, but it was Moonrise Kingdom that, for me, truly marked Anderson’s return to form. Yes, he continued his exploration of frenetic adolescence, he still created an innocent-yet-flawed fairy tale world and populated it with odd characters exchanging clever dialogue, but there was once again depth and beauty in these characters.

Which brings us to a Saturday night at The Kabuki for the opening weekend of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anticipation. Excitement. Memories of a similarly-eager opening weekend of Rushmore still fresh in my mind.

The movie began as almost all Anderson movies begin: playfully and exuberantly. In these first moments, it seemed as if the director’s lens had merely focused on a different aspect of the same magical Anderson world: a story within a story, of a great and beautiful hotel, run by a charismatic and clever concierge and his loyal and honorable lobby boy. Imaginative and carefully-antiquated set design: check. Pure and poetic young love. Oddball characters. Dramatic declarations interrupted by slapstick mayhem.

In fact, there is even more slapstick humor in Grand Budapest then any other Anderson movie. Perhaps inspired by the time period, characters seem to fling themselves in every which direction. Hotel staff pop in and out of the background, the concierge spins and hastily retreats to escape from the authorities – it’s all incredibly silly and positively delightful.

Although Grand Budapest Hotel may appear on the surface just another adorable Wes Anderson whimsical flight, it actually marks a dramatic departure for the director. His previous movies certainly included dark themes, but Grand Budapest introduces an entirely new level of morbidity, as the hotel and its occupants get caught up in a ferocious maelstrom of dismemberment, murder and war.

There is the literal violence: a severed head and a handful of severed fingers; a brutal and bloody slaughter by knife. And even though this gore is seemingly contained within Anderson’s familiar playful musical and visual mechanisms, the darkness ultimately prevails. The comical cat-out-the-window gag that could have easily existed in a previous, lighter Anderson movie, ends with a clear bird’s eye view of the splattered creature below.

And then there is the pervasive darkness of the war that constantly threatens both the characters’ lives and the fragile nature of Anderson’s own innocent world. As the movie progresses, the soldiers transform from rough, but compassionate, into a pure evil that has no precedent in any of his previous films. The concierge turns from juggling silvered baronesses to battling brutality and death; the lobby boy from focusing on perfect servitude to fighting passionately for love, justice and legacy.

All of these transformations within the movie seem to represent that of Anderson’s himself. As the director ages, he seems to identify less with the blissful perceived permanence of adolescence and more with the third act struggle with mortality. Perhaps too he is beginning to recognize the limitations of his own artistic reliance on an old and precious world. Near the film’s end, the narrator offers commentary on the noble concierge:

To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with marvelous grace.