By Ethan Sapienza
Wes Anderson is a hero for many at NYU, a gifted genius who can do no wrong. Uttering some kind of criticism of his work is worthy of social exile or academic expulsion. I speak in hyperbole, but it’s not that exaggerated. It’s unprecedented how much my peers adore his work, and much of it is well deserved and understandable. Except for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Anderson’s latest work won him an incredible amount of cultural cachet and garnered nine Academy Award nominations, seemingly affirming him as one of the great directors of this generation. I find the fact that “Hotel” is the one to cause for Anderson’s true pronouncement to be utterly unsettling. His prior film “Moonrise Kingdom” was a masterwork deeply rooted in his style (meticulous color schemes, stiff and quirky shots, dry performances with an occasional emotional outburst, etc.). It beautifully told a story of love and family, yet it hardly got the kind of explosive response that “Hotel” received.
While the film followed many of the same motions that are so integral to Anderson’s oeuvre, it introduced a new motif that his previous works lacked: violence. It may have been present in some of his movies, like Owen Wilson’s unsavory slaughtering of the dog in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but there was never as much blood as what poured out of “Hotel.” In theory, it could add a pulse to his films where characters can come off as utterly taut and alien. In actuality, it unravels the fairytale like nature of the work.
Anderson’s dedication to a surreal and wry style, with staunchly eccentric characters, constructs films that can be unseemly entertaining and hilarious. When he intelligently decides to add in some true emotion, as in when Luke Wilson attempts suicide in “Tenenbaums,” it provides great outreach and impact. Violence only adds alarm and queasiness to films that are wonderfully lighthearted. Take when Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) gets his fingers chopped off by J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe). It’s depicted in gory, gratuitous detail, and provides nothing to the film except for shock value and schlock. A worse example is when a man is stabbed and bleeds to death, a sight the viewer is forced to watch.
The violence is presented with the same kind of shrugging comicality that Anderson uses with his usual tropes, yet such violence weighs far heavier on the soul than color scheme and romantic plot points. It’s used for no other reason than maybe a laugh or a gasp, something Quentin Tarantino is far better at than Wes Anderson ever will or should be.
The flat punctuality of the blood matches the film’s rather sudden ending. While the setup of the story is hysterical and offers meta commentary, poking fun at Anderson’s love for stories within a story, the ultimate train ride presents a scenario in stark black and white, where Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) perishes over a simple argument. It makes the preceding events (the film’s entire plot) seem worthless, though the undermining doesn’t end there. The viewer is led to adore the budding romance between Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), while fearing the much-foreshadowed demise of Agatha. Instead, their love is smacked in the face of the viewer, much of the excitement skipped over, and her death is quite jarringly said to have taken place years after Gustave’s death. It’s a disagreeable bait and switch that makes no sense. And like all the violence that precedes it, it’s a distasteful addition to Anderson’s usual patterns that cause art to fall to mediocrity.
Ethan Sapienza is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org