thought it was the most fully-realized re his ‘thing’ that he does, and it also seemed most consistent. feel like he finally figured out how to access real emotionality that doesn’t feel cloying, specifically thru the narrative structure/bracketing of the stories. that emotionally affected me more than g paltrow walking slo mo to elliott smith or whatever ever could. in his past movies i always felt that it was a bit of a stretch to go from perpetually emphasizing how detached, theatrical, sardonic the tone of everything is, to then attempting to give a scene like a kid drowning in a river emotional resonance. its comedy really worked for me too, though i could see someone being turned off by it.
I still prefer Life Aquatic or Tenenbaums but I thought it quite fascinating. The use of different aspect ratios, I think, provide a unique challenge for Anderson to find ways to compose his scenes in regards to his usual style (what Bordwell refers to as the planimetric shot).
Thanks for that link! And, BT, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said (and hope you see this comment—I wish Disqus let one flag or otherwise reply to multiple comments). I find I have a great deal to say about the film, but at the moment I’m stepping out to attend a puppet show. I’ll check back in later, and will be curious to hear what others think about TGBH…
I haven’t been in the mood yet (I have trouble sitting through movies anymore) but at some point I will be and then I expect to feel strongly in one way or another about it, given the strongly divided opinions I’ve seen. Ads have made me pretty sure it would be his final descent into twee, and some folks are saying that, but some are saying what Bartleby does below.
hello a.d., always interested in your film criticism.
also curious what, if anything, people think about TGBH being inspired by stefan zweig? i’ve read a lot of his writing, but i feel like i’m missing the connection. is it just the old-fashioned european-ness of the film’s aesthetic, and/or the concomitant imperative to keep a lid on one’s emotional inner life most of the time, or is there something more?
I was curious about his decision to set the movie in an imaginary country menaced by a fictional war, when it could have easily been placed in the real world. I know it helps cake on the whimsy, and I don’t think it would shift the tone too much.
That aside, I really enjoyed the film. Dafoe was great, and Anderson did an excellent job juggling so many elements.
I think I’d call it more a full embrace of diegesis, and a simultaneous rejection of mimesis. “Twee” is too limited and presumably dismissive a term for what Anderson is doing here (although I have never understood why twee is a bad thing, despite its critics usually beginning with that assumption).
There’s also the fictionalization of the SS, which is present here as the ZZ.
I don’t think this is an entirely satisfactory answer, but I read those maneuvers as attempts to (further) diminish the film’s claims to mimesis, as well as distancing or defamiliarizing devices. The film’s at least partly satirical, I think? I was reminded of Duck Soup‘s taking place in Freedonia. (And I call this unsatisfactory because really I’m just replacing the question with a new one, which is “What’s Anderson’s doing in this regard, and why?”)
Yeah, the ZZ switch bugged me the most. It felt like Anderson was trying to force them into a cartoon. It made me think of The Act of Killing, where the “gangsters” try to distance themselves from their crimes by flattening their personas into western archetypes (a benevolent gangster/robin-hoodish figure). They’re unsuccessful because the horror of their actions resists that attempt — a cartoon of a savage beating is even more unsettling than the beating itself, as it shows that you’re fucked up enough to try and lighten-up something that can’t be.
I think ultimately Anderson is interested in building highly-stylized worlds that comment on/satirize our own, but in this case I wasn’t sure what the comment or satire was supposed to achieve.
i could see someone thinking this, though i didn’t. i liked it. the people i went with felt similar to you. movie definitely looked the best of his and was/is his most “complete, fully realized” or whatever, but it also felt so tight to me, so perfect, maybe overly so. i don’t know. i don’t want to critique it or anything. it seemed, at its most impactful, cerebrally emotional, to me, which is fine, but also light due to its wroughtness. i don’t know. it was charming. i did like it and i could definitely understand how others could really love it.
I just realized that link doesn’t quite work…ah well. Anyway, I doubt this’ll help anyone understand TGBH better, but there’s a copy of Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman on YouTube if anyone’s interested. I still have to watch it myself!
Yeah, I don’t actually think twee is inherently bad, although it’s mostly not a term I feel tempted to use unless I think it’s gone too far. Usually the terms that come to mind when I think it works are “sweet” and “cute.” (I think both are extremely undervalued by most writers.)
Here’s a corrected link to the Bordwell essay (which is excellent). And thanks for the heads up about the Ophuls!
Have you seen anything by Claude Sautet? Anderson’s cited him as an influence. I’ve seen only Classe tous risques and Mado. There are places in the latter where I can see definitely see some connection.
I’m sure you have me at a disadvantage when it comes to Zweig, since I’m only passingly familiar with the man’s work. I could speak more clearly about Ernst Lubitsch’s influence on Grand Budapest. But, regarding Zweig & Anderson, this article in the Paris Review might be of interest?
Mu roommate and I spent some time discussing the film over dinner the other day. And the best response I’ve been able to come up with, in regards to your compelling question, is that Anderson, in Grand Budapest, is highly concerned with the fictional nature of all society. I think he’s doing something very complicated here: he’s carefully distinguishing between that which is artificial, and cultural, and that which is natural or autonomic. It’s useful to contrast Grand Budapest with The Royal Tenenbaums. That earlier film is entirely concerned with biology. The Tenenbaums cannot stop being Tenenbaums (“family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence”). Margot Tenenbaum is adopted. Owen Wilson’s character “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” There’s no such thing as choice when it comes to family, to biology. We are what we are born as.
But in Grand Budapest, biology isn’t the dominant paradigm—culture is. Gustave H. is wholly concerned with customs and protocols that are cultural, and artificial. His own origins are unknown, and what we have instead is a self-made man. Zero can become a citizen and a lobby boy regardless of his ethnicity or country of origin. Etc. And so I think Anderson is interested in the ways in which nations have supplanted biology in determining identity. My ancestors are mostly Irish. My brother-in-law’s family came from Cambodia. Yet he and I are both “Americans,” and we both like pizza, and we both like watching football. But as real as America seems (and it seems very, very real), it is ultimately an artificial construct, from its borders to its constitution—all of which can be rewritten.
So it seems to me that the value in thinly veiling things like Austria and the S.S. is that we still recognize them as Austria and the S.S., but at the same time, we stop for a moment to remember their artificiality. I think? I can’t say for certain that this is what Anderson is up to, but Grand Budapest strikes me as a film very much concerned with the artifice of culture.
I’d love to hear more of your own thoughts on the matter!
I found the extreme violence extremely unnerving, more so than in a Tarantino film for example. The combination of the “twee”-ness of it, the cuteness of the surrounding composition actually serve to sort of enhance the brutality of these scenes.
The shivving scene is rigidly contained within the shot and separated from the other characters, and then reduced to a glib little punchline by Gustave. The cat is kept in a sack, and again, reduced to a sort of gag over the course of multiple scenes. Even Goldblum’s character’s fingers, a lovely warm shade of Wes-Anderson pink, are chopped off by a door removing him from the scene. Just like every other aspect of his composition, gore and violence are sectioned off, reduced to another doodah or trinket on a perfectly organized shelf. I found myself more disturbed by this than I really should have.
The cat scene actually continues a tradition of bad things happening to pets in his movies like the dog in Moonrise Kingdom or the dog at the end of Royal Tenenbaums. In fact they almost seem to be escalating. A friend and I joke that Anderson may be a serial killer diverting his tendencies through film, starting off with neighborhood pets, and will soon move into actual movies about serial killers. How amazing would Se7en or Saw have been if they had been directed by Wes Anderson?
Oh and M. Gustave is I think the best character Wes Anderson has written yet. Ralph Fiennes was awesome but the actual character is just spectacular.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your theory does explain why Gustave takes such a shine to Zero. He sees in him a blank slate, someone who is looking for inclusion in a culture, if only because his old one is destroyed.
I think Anderson is claiming that nostalgia is an artificial construct as well. At one point, old Zero says that Gustave comes not from the previous generation, but from one much older than that. You can read this in one of two ways: the first in an eternal regression, Viking way (Gustave comes from some mythical golden past), but I don’t think that interpretation is correct, as Gustave isn’t a typical heroic character. It could be that Anderson is trying to say that Gustave comes from a far more irretrievable place — Zero’s memory of his youth. He exists there, alive and frozen in time, yet in no way real. Anderson’s heavy stylization, as you said, reminds the viewer of the artifice of the film, and also shows that memory is a construct as well.
Saw it. It was less touching than Rushmore (my favorite of Anderon’s), Royal T’s, or The Life Aq. Seemed a much more technical affair, not without charm, but also lacking emotional draw. I’m never one to say heartstrings pulled are the best metric for measuring movies, but the combination of unique visual style with that emotion was what I liked about the earlier stuff. When so many Hollywood movies failed to reach me in that way, it was nice to have it happen. I still liked it.
The alternate Europe stuff didn’t strike me as belittling or irresponsible. To place the story in actual events would bring even more baggage than the mere hinting at history via the ZZ. It was interesting that many of the actors didn’t use accents when speaking, further confounding attempts to draw direct analogues to real nations and people. I think it’s clear the setting is not allegorical, more impressionistic or fanciful.
Adam, I hope I’m not too late to the conversation, because I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Lubitsch-GBH connection, especially since I’ve just finished viewing the Lubitsch musicals box from Criterion, which closes with One Hour with You from 1932, the year GBH takes place.
I know that when comparisons are made between Anderson and Lubitsch, they usually don’t involve editing, but I, for one, was surprised by how slow the Lubitsch films seemed in comparison to the zippy GBH. At least in these early musicals, many scenes and individual shots feel like they’re a little too long, the transitions between them slightly stilted. In contrast, GBH, at least to me, felt like Anderson’s most rapidly cut film. Because so many shots end a beat or two before I expected them to, very few moments in the movie feel like they have a chance to breathe. This may be necessary, considering how much plot and story the movie includes, but it felt a little airless to me (BTW I’d like to see an ASL comparison of all his films to see if there’s any trend.) At first I attributed the sluggish pace of the Lubitsch musicals on the primitive sound technology, but I also recently watched Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (Wonderful! and also released 1932), which I thought moved very elegantly from start to finish, no awkwardness at all. THEN I came across a line in James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood that referenced “Lubitsch’s effects of delayed cutting…” (33). Do you have any idea what this refers to, and have you noticed it in any of Lubitsch’s other films? (It’s been too long since I’ve seen them…)
The Lubitsch films also threw into relief how sexless GBH, and Anderson’s films in general, are by comparison. Even his films that feature sex and nudity almost totally lack eroticism. Though to be fair, while GBH is about many things, it isn’t really concerned, as the Lubitsch musicals almost wholly are, with Topic A. As for romance, the only traditional love story in the movie is the love between Zero and Agatha, which felt to me a little hollow. There is, however, that lovely close up of Agatha, her face encircled by swirling multi-colored lights as she rides the merry-go-round. I wish this Z-A relationship had been deepened a little more–and Agatha more fully fleshed out as a character–so that Zero’s reveals about Agatha in the denoument had more heft. Did the telling rather than the showing of the characters’ fates have any emotional resonance with you? And is this related to your comments about Anderson’s move toward diegisis and away from mimesis?
Well, sorry for blathering on without digging in to anything substantial. When there’s so much to discuss, I sometimes have difficulty identifying what’s worth discussing.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about ‘service’ – about service being the basis or essence or substance of human interaction–that is, of the deformations of ‘human’ and heroic resistance to those deformations that constitute history.
In this regard to service, TGBH would make a cool double feature with Remains of the Day: Auden’s “low” decade.
It’s also at least equally about ‘storytelling’ – about structuring value and meaning narratively, or perhaps about how value and meaning emerge constituted narratively.
In regard to story-about-story, TGBH would make a great double with The Draughtsman’s Contract. The stylization–the ‘formalism’–of these movies – how Anderson squares and centers his action to contest (at least in my notion) Greenaway’s dislodgement of frame – would be fun to experience over those five or so hours (even if it’s just a notional dialogue).
I remember I was very excited to see it (when it was rereleased), then underwhelmed when I did. But I didn’t make any notes as to why, sadly. I would of course be happy to revisit it—I need to make a more systematic study of Sautet’s work.