Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel, while definitely for adults, earning its R-rating with mature themes as well as blood, death and copious f-bombs, is also as delightfully flaky and multi-layered as one of the beautifully decorated pastries, the “Courtesans au chocolat”, that play a key role in the film. It’s lovingly crafted in Anderson’s signature candy colors and wrapped in an equally pretty pink box, not the one tied with a blue ribbon, but the Grand Budapest Hotel itself.
The film recounts the adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. The story involves the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for an enormous family fortune — all against the back-drop of a suddenly and dramatically changing Continent.
The film is another in a line of Anderson’s charming and brightly colored shadowboxes, this one awash in extravagant shades of topaz, rose and amethyst, and filled with the director’s usual complement of wacky characters to whom he’s given lots of amusing and eloquent things to say and lots of screwball antics to perform.
It begins with an aging writer embarking on a story told to him when he was a younger man, by another aging raconteur who then proceeds to tell the tale of The Grand Budapest Hotel when it was indeed still grand. So it’s a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, telling a story within a story within a story, spanning three different eras, each with its own production design and color palette. The setting is the fictional European country of Zubrowka, an obvious stand-in for any of a number of Eastern bloc countries like Czechoslovakia or Poland. When the film opens, the titular castle-like hotel, though clearly fallen on hard times, stands as a remnant of a bye-gone era – an era of grace and beauty…and excess. The year is 1968 and the Grand Budapest Hotel has been refurbished to reflect more utilitarian times, but it is one of the mysteries around which the film revolves that it has been allowed to remain otherwise untouched, a gracefully aging doyenne atop a mountain, looming over the villages below when private property is clearly frowned upon. (Think of how many families could make use of the hotel’s rooms!)
As all of Anderson’s films revolve around some variation of a father/son dynamic, usually a quirky middle-aged man and the precocious boy he takes under his wing, The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. This time around, the mentor is played by Ralph Fiennes as “the mysterious Monsieur Gustave H.”, the consummate concierge who is by turns fussy, fastidious, charming, condescending, a little creepy and sweetly endearing. Often these traits are all visible within the same scene The elderly society matrons who seem to make up the lion’s share of the hotel’s guests, provide Monsieur Gustave with ample opportunity to polish his gifts for seduction and flattery to a fine patina, even when they’re dead.
The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Anderson at his most spirited and stylish. As Gustave and “his lobby boy” named Zero embark on a fateful trip to honor one such dearly departed guest’s memory, they wind up embroiled in a zany murder mystery comprised of a string of antic set pieces that take them from a vast and spooky mansion to a hilarious prison break to a cartoonish ski-and-sled chase from a mountaintop monastery.
Of course along the way they’ll run into a colorful array of Anderson’s regular company of players. It would be too spoilery for me to tell you who Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson play but part of the fun is waiting for them to pop up, since you know they’re bound to. Adrien Brody is obviously having a blast as the villain, all but twirling his mustache like Snidely Whiplash in melodramatic glee, as is an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, who has far too little screen time. (Apparently both she and Ralph Fiennes agree as Swinton has said that they’ve talked about doing a “prequel” depicting Monsieur Gustave and Madame D’s “love story”.) Edward Norton does a variation of Scout Master Ward from Moonrise Kingdom, as Henckels. New members of the company include F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law, among several other familiar faces. But it’s Fiennes to whom this movie belongs and who provides the gravitas and is the ambiguous heart and soul of the film. He’s in nearly every frame of the picture. As an actor he’s gotten so good at playing villains or heavy dramatic roles that it’s almost a giddy surprise to discover his impeccable comic timing. He inhabits Monsieur Gustave in such a way that we cannot doubt his sincerity whether he’s berating his lobby boy, vetting Zero’s young girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) or complimenting a corpse on her complexion, despite the fact that he remains a bit of a cryptic figure. He’s civilized and refined, at least superficially, but he’s also prone to vulgarity and casual cruelty and his own background is left purposely vague.
The spectre of impending war looms large and the Nazis are given the thinnest of veils instead of being named outright, but Nazi-era anxieties play a huge role. If one compares The Grand Budapest Hotel to another film set during the same time period, Cabaret, then Gustave H. is like a more genteel version of Joel Grey’s Emcee.
If the only Wes Anderson film you’re familiar with is 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, a gently deviant story of first love, it might surprise you to discover that The Grand Budapest Hotel is peppered with startling images of violence. After a character tosses a cat out a window, we see its bloody remains on the pavement below before it’s off-handedly discarded in a trash can, not to mention the close-up of some recently amputated fingers. There’s also a brief glimpse of sexual explicitness that feels almost shockingly out of place in a Wes Anderson film. (It’s meant to be jarring and it does earn a well-deserved laugh from the audience.) Anderson seems ready and willing to indulge a taste for the crude and grotesque. He treats characters’ physical blemishes and deformities as visual one-liners like the shoeshine boy with the prosthetic leg and the bakery girl with “a port wine stain in the shape of Mexico” on her face.
Anderson has said that his inspirations were the wartime comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, like To Be or Not to Be, but this isn’t so much a satire as it is an homage or soft focus mirror image of those films. He gives us the abhorrence of authoritarianism which marked that earlier genre, not as a crime against humanity, but more as an affront to good taste and Old World etiquette. Despite the humor, the pastels and jewel tones and the near slapstick energy of some of the vignettes, there is a tinge of melancholy wafting through the film, particularly in the section that takes place post-war, centering on Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and The Writer (Jude Law).
The dialogue written by Anderson from a story by Hugo Guinness and inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, is heavily laced with poetry and gives Gustave the right to be called a genuinely romantic figure, in the truest sense of the term.
Part of Anderson’s charm is his ability to put together the perfect musical canvas upon which to draw his pictures. I’ve been listening to Alexandre Desplat’s memorable score for weeks now. It will carry you along until it dares you not to tap your toes, especially during the final credits. (You do stay, right?) You must. You’ll want to dance the Hopak like a Cossack or at least throw your arms up to shout “Hey!” when the music stops.
Ultimately, The Grand Budapest Hotel is enchanting, as well-appointed and smoothly run as its titular establishment. So here’s a question, why is a movie this much fun, this well made and well acted, released in March? Why wasn’t it saved for the big end-of-the-year awards circus? It played a few well respected festivals like Berlin and Glasgow earlier in the winter, but not the biggies like Cannes, Toronto or Venice or even Tribeca. Was releasing it in March Anderson’s way of thumbing his nose at awards in general? Am I reading too much into this? Quite possibly. Okay, probably. But I submit that all those of us who care about such things should agree to keep talking about this film and keep it in people’s minds –the minds of the people in a position to have an impact anyway – so that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year.
Sure there will be a lot more films released between now and then, some of them may be flashier, some of them may even be better. But some may not, but by virtue of their place on the calendar may get the accolades. Just my humble opinion, but I think that at the end of the year we’ll still be thinking that Ralph Fiennes will deserve some mention as a candidate for Best Actor. Even Edward Norton admits, despite the fact that he really wanted to play Monsieur Gustave himself, that no one could have played him as well as Fiennes. Sure he didn’t have to gain or lose any weight or wear a prosthetic nose or anything else, but the delicate balance of the movie rests on his shoulders. Lord knows Fiennes has deserved the recognition many times before and has been overlooked (*coughCoriolanuscough*). He hasn’t been nominated by the Academy since 1996. 1996! C’mon.
Okay, I’m off of my soapbox. Bottom line, you need to check into the four-star establishment that is The Grand Budapest Hotel and let Monsieur Gustave see to your comfort for a couple of hours.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, written and directed by Wes Anderson, with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux and Fisher Stevens, is open in select cities in the US and Canada now and is rolling out to more tomorrow March 21.
Final Trailer – Red Band:
How to Make “Courtesans au Chocolat”:
Meet the Cast:
The Central Conceit of Wes Anderson: