I moved to Philadelphia from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania almost exactly ten years ago. I did not know the world I was entering, but one surprise of my new life was how familiar I became with very popular independent film makers. Wes Anderson, who some of you may scoff at me calling independent, was one of them. Then, I think he had only made Bottlerocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums (still my favorite). I didn’t know what to think of his movies. They were loosely driven by plot, the dialogue wasn’t particularly engaging but it was cute, and the characters often seemed more like caricatures. I was at peace with it because of how beautiful it was. I did not think of the social and spiritual consequences beauty without substance then, but that particular fact struck me when I was enjoying his latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I know it came out months ago, but life with a toddler means we watch movies a few months after everyone else.
Nevertheless, the $31 million movie, which features a star-studded cast (Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Warris Alhuwalia), is an aesthetic wonder. My personal preoccupation with symmetry is mirrored in Wes Anderson’s perfectly framed shots. His movies are often broken up into acts, too, which makes something that can be esoteric rather approachable. The use of color, costume, and placement all seems immaculate. Everything counts and Wes Anderson gives his undivided attention to every on- and off-screen detail. This may be melodramatic, but at times, it is breathtaking.
The plot itself is whimsical and entertaining, but not nearly profound. It tells the tale of the rise and fall and subsequent rise again of a hotel concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) during World War II, when his native Republic of Zubrowka gets occupied by the Nazi-like Zig Zag party (their logo mimics the SS’ double lightning bolts). Gustave befriends the lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) and they adventure together. A visitor of the hotel, Madame D., (whose family owns the place) who becomes intimate with the concierge, but she, like all of the other work who frequent the hotel to sleep with Gustave, departs. After which, she is murdered, most likely by a distant family friend (Willem Dafoe) and the concierge is accused of it. What makes matters worse is that the Madame wills him a valuable piece of her art collection, Boy with Apple (which, by the way, he stole before the original will was verified as authentic). He goes to prison, escapes (with no consequence?) and is pursued by the murderous family. As the story goes on and his friendship with Zero deepens, we find out that the will that gives the concierge the painting wasn’t the one that the Madame intended in the event she was murdered. The second will gives the concierge everything she owns. In the end, the fake Nazis end up killing him, and he in turn wills everything to Zero.
The story’s plot isn’t so compelling as much as the unlikely relationship between the concierge and lobby boy is. Anderson relies on his excellent eye for film to make the movie very easy to consume; the dialogue swims out of the actors’ mouths too (this cast is so stellar, it’s not surprising). Anderson was not just endearing to freshman at Temple when I went, the cast of big names showcases that the man with style has befriended many great actors and actresses (although, this was a surprisingly male dominant cast) who are willing to play humble parts to be a part of something greater, or more beautiful, then themselves.
It might be surprising, but the comfort the celebrities provide the audience is palpable. The room I watched it with chuckled as famous names just kept popping up. There is something special about watching something familiar, as if we can really relate to the actors we have come to admire. Wes Anderson reminds us of the power of community even as we look into the silver screen. There’s power to moviemaking that improves with age because we are growing old with the recurring actors. His admirers have come to expect Bill Murray, for example, to at least make a cameo in his films.
However, the actors themselves, playing such small parts at times, are often merely a part of that aesthetic excellence. So what does it say that the art in an artform is what we value most in a film? How shallow can entertainment be in order for it to be successful?
I asked my viewers what they thought of the movie after we watched it; we didn’t get very far. One noted that the film was cute until one particularly bloody scene. We enjoyed it and consumed it, but I’m not sure it is going to be deeply remembered by any of us.
It seems to me that our lives are so often filled with these short encounters that satisfy a need that I think only Jesus can. Just like Gustave’s numerous sex partners, is a Wes Anderson movie a hook-up when we really want a relationship? Is it like one of those delicious Mendls’ pastries featured in the movie, when what we really want is a real meal?
The comfort the movie gives us, Jesus endlessly does. The good feelings that the beautiful cinematography and colorful sets give us, are also offered in community. We don’t need to pretend like we actually know actors and actresses because we see them in enough stylistically similar movies, we have a covenant for real connections.
And maybe that’s the point of the movie. Gustave gave Zero everything, but perhaps the most valuable thing he gave him was what he chronicled as he narrated the film: a relationship. God gave us that very thing to, in the person of Jesus Christ.