Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is at once a lot of things, and yet it’s none of them — it refuses to make itself clear, but it’s not esoteric; its characters deliver hilarious lines with resolute deadpan faces, but the film is not a comedy in the strict sense of the word; it subtly hints at our corroding humanity, but its gaze is not melancholic. A few weeks ago, I chanced on a review of the film, where one of the lines read: “Wes Anderson is the master of ‘saudade’, the nostalgia for something you never had or that never existed.” Turns out, “saudade” is a Portuguese word, which has no direct translation in English. Just like the word “saudade” — a foreign word that doesn’t find a suitable expression in the language we are familiar with — Anderson’s latest is at best an approximation. The film is right there in front of you, and yet at the same time it’s magically elusive. Most films — irrespective of their merits — make us feel something. But if a film, consummately embellished with adept directorial flourishes, doesn’t make you feel anything, then does that make it any less worthy of admiration? After coming out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I am not sure I have the answer to that question.
So what is the film about? If by “what”, you mean the story, then it unfolds as follows: it’s centered on an author (Jude Law) who makes a trip to the hotel in 1968, and meets its owner (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts his life story. That story, set in 1932, is about humble beginnings colliding with long-standing affluence, friendship fostering in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and the tribulations of a penurious immigrant. Having said that, no amount of plot synopsis can help you understand the film. And anyway, no one walks into a Wes Anderson film just for the “story”. The charm of Anderson’s films, this one seamlessly fitting into his oeuvre, lies in fantastical, picturesque frames that tell their own mini-stories. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different. Its first 20 minutes introduce you to the eponymous hotel, which reminds you of an elaborately constructed set-piece: a toy train on an inclined railway track takes people to the entrance of the hotel; the interiors of its elevator are bathed in stark red; the telephone booth in its premises looks like a beautiful standalone cardboard cut-out; the ornate ceilings stare at the elaborately decorated red carpet. This is not a world you can hope to live in; neither is it a world you would ever have lived in…and yet it exists, and speaks to us just by being present.
Once Anderson is done building the film’s world, he switches his focus to the plot, and that’s where the first stuttering signs appear. The universe of the film is pushed to the background, and plot points are painstakingly joined together to give us a story of some sort. Had the story itself been as riveting as the film’s gorgeous visuals, you wouldn’t have minded as much, but here the story is strictly pedestrian — switching from comedy to drama to quasi-thriller. And yet you will not find your attention flagging because Anderson ingeniously combines the various contrasting filmic elements to give us a memorable concoction. In the film’s climax, the hotel’s lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and its owner (Ralph Fiennes) are gliding on snow, chasing a murder suspect, Jopling (Williem Dafoe); in theory, it’s a scene of immense tension, but it’s underscored by playful background music, making you unsure of the final result. Similarly, a few scenes of death and violence are marked by unconventional levity, teasing and disconcerting you in equal measure as you coil yourself trying to find a meaning. But why should you, really? Films shouldn’t necessarily be designed to serve us; sometimes, there’s singular joy in watching a film that has a mind of its own.
Originally published at The Sunday Guardian.