Oscar Second Opinion is a chance for Grantland writers to look back on some of the 2014 films that were nominated for Academy Awards with a fresh and wiser perspective.
Trying to sway the Academy is only slightly less futile than teaching a cat to fetch; but since Birdman’s double guild win last weekend scattered the Oscar tea leaves, I’ll take my opening. Dear Academy, I know you can’t bring yourself to vote for Boyhood because it’s too damn small (sigh); and maybe you feel that beneath all its fancy edits you’re not sure what exactly Birdman is saying, if anything. So allow me to suggest an unlikely compromise candidate: The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m so pro-Boyhood that Grantland thinks I’m on IFC’s payroll. 1 But The Grand Budapest Hotel not only stayed with me all year, its broad success amazes me even now: This is Wes Anderson out–Wes Andersoning Wes Anderson. How did it end up with nine Oscar nominations? The knock on Anderson has always been that his twee movie miniatures keep growing so fastidiously appointed that soon only tuba-bicycle aficionados will appreciate them. That SNL sketch seemed less like parody than prophecy. Yet I’m far from alone in my fondness for Budapest; it’s as if it’s the first Wes Anderson film that those who aren’t Criterion fanatics can embrace. Why?
Editor’s note: The internal investigation is ongoing.
A great deal of credit goes to Ralph Fiennes. Somehow, the cultural reappropriation that some see as fetishization in Anderson’s films feels wholly authentic in Fiennes’s hands. Only Anderson would rediscover a cosmopolitan aesthete like Stefan Zweig and fashion a film tribute to him; but only Fiennes could make flesh and blood a character who might otherwise be a cartoon. (And only Fiennes could sell Zweig’s panache even when he’s getting a geriatric blowjob; that shot really jumps out when you rewatch Budapest with your family over the holidays.) Remember, Fiennes is the same actor who almost won an Oscar playing the very embodiment of fascist barbarity that Budapest’s M. Gustave diametrically opposes: That’s range.
But I’d argue that Fiennes’s elegance doesn’t merely elevate a precious bauble that’s really just high-class kitsch. It’s a little like listening to Pink Floyd played by the Royal Philharmonic. When Anderson has an instrument of Fiennes’s caliber (or Gene Hackman’s), you see his artistry in a different light. From Bottle Rocket to Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson underwrites every one of his diorama films with loss. The vibrancy of his storybook worlds shines brightest when contrasted with an underlying melancholy: Max Fischer’s mundane home life in Rushmore, the specter of Social Services in Moonrise Kingdom, or the failed family of The Royal Tenenbaums. (Alternately, his films feel less appealing when the ennui is explicitly foregrounded, as in The Darjeeling Limited.) But if you don’t buy Anderson’s aesthetic, it’s easy to write off his movies as cloistered, escapist fantasies. I don’t agree; or rather, I won’t roll my eyes at Anderson’s work because of that. But some do.
However, in Grand Budapest and Stefan Zweig, Anderson broached a depth of loss you can’t easily dismiss. The real Zweig took his life in 1942, after the Nazis had overrun Europe, disillusioned that the high culture he so prized incinerated faster than tissue paper in the furnaces of fascism. But that’s an old story the movies have told us a million different ways before. Here’s where Anderson has something new to offer: his gift for making molehills out of mountains. We’ve seen the horrors of fascism so tastefully embalmed by countless prestige films that it’s hard not to be numb to it by now. At a certain point, dramatic teeth-gnashing becomes mere iconography. But the Anderson treatment almost reawakens you to that ugliness hiding in the wings of civilization. I don’t know about you, but seeing storm troopers come crashing into one of his minutely crafted capers threw me a little. Sure, you can laugh at the double pink Z logo of the Zig-Zags; but that laughter curdled into a lump in my throat when Gustave met his end vainly defending his lobby boy from a mute thug. Fisticuffs prove a poor match for machine guns.
I’m not arguing that The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t obviously a comedy, and a breezy one at that — how can you not laugh at Fiennes reciting ersatz romantic poetry while Willem Dafoe stomps the cliff’s edge from which he dangles? And we know how comedies fare when it comes to Best Picture. But I will offer that maybe for the first time in his career Anderson is close to operating at the level of Lubitsch and Ophuls, The Rules of the Game and The Last Metro. The raised stakes of crumbling European civilization allow us to see how his unrepentant lightness is its own rebuke to the immutable darknesses of real life. The film is a string quartet playing while the Titanic sinks. Or a vintage tuba, if you must.
There’s one lovely shot early on that I find particularly telling. After a bullet montage detailing all of Gustave’s eccentricities, caressing every nook and cranny of the Budapest, Anderson shows us an off-the-clock Gustave eating a bowl of bland porridge alone in a shoebox room — the same shoebox that F. Murray Abraham’s grown-up Zero Moustafa lives in when he visits. The man barely exists outside his role of concierge and impresario. Gustave is wholly dedicated to presentation and decorum; it’s the sole recourse he has to keep the brute realities of existence at bay. Or, as Abraham puts it, “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it; but he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
That might also be a pretty apt description of what Wes Anderson, at his best, can achieve.