By Melissa Agar
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight, 2014) – Director: Wes Anderson. Writers: Wes Anderson (s/p), Hugo Guinness (story). Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saorise Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, & Tony Revolori. Color, 100 minutes.
I want to live inside a Wes Anderson film. There is a sort of timeless comfort to the look of Anderson’s films – it feels retro yet contemporary at the same time. There is a saturation of color that makes his world vibrant and vital, and the world is populated with eccentric yet humane characters that are beautifully flawed and honest. Plus, Bill Murray is lurking around every corner, and that is never a bad thing.
In his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson takes us to the fictional republic of Zubrowka, a small Alpine nation on the cusp of a major war in the early-to-mid 1930s. The titular hotel is an oasis perched atop a mountain, a spa destination for Europe’s wealthiest largely on the strength of its devoted concierge, Gustave H. (Fiennes). Gustave is the picture of gentility and courtesy, running his hotel with hospitable precision while attending to the more intimate needs of the hotel’s wealthy, elderly female guests.
When one of those guests, Madame D. (Swinton in layers of glorious old age makeup), dies shortly after leaving the hotel, Gustave falls under suspicion leveled against him by her petty, greedy heirs, particularly her slimy son Dmitri (Brody) and his creepy sidekick Jopling (Dafoe). Once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Gustave must rely on his young protégé, lobby boy Zero (newcomer Revolori), to escape and prove his innocence without compromising the trust of the hotel’s guests. All this is set against an impending war, Zero’s blossoming love of a sweet confectionery maker named Agatha (Ronan), and the quest to honor Madame D.’s final wishes – whatever they might be.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a narrative as precisely layered as the delicious confections made by sweet Agatha. It starts with a young woman sitting down to read a book by a beloved unnamed Author (Wilkinson). The book is initially narrated by the author but then switches to his younger self (Law) reminiscing about the time he stayed at the now-declining hotel to help relieve his writer’s ennui. The Writer makes the acquaintance of a wealthy older gentleman who owns the hotel, a grown-up Zero (Abraham). At this point, the narration switches to adult Zero telling the Writer the story of his adventures with Gustave. Each level of narration builds on the next to create the ultimate treat, a funny, touching story about embracing humanity even when such a thing seems next to impossible.
When discussing Anderson, it’s impossible to leave out his art design, and here, Anderson perhaps surpasses everything he’s done before with lavish sets spanning eras that evoke a tone before a character even says a word. Whether it’s the cotton candy saturation of the 1930s hotel or the sleek but sad decline of its 1960s incarnation, the life of the hotel is as vibrant and real as the characters who inhabit it.
Of course, there have been plenty of “pretty” movies that have fallen flat. (I, for one, never bought into the magic of The Tree of Life despite the gorgeous cinematography.) The richness of Anderson’s visual world would be nothing without the characters that fill it. The cast here is led by a transcendent turn from Fiennes. We’ve seen Fiennes be evil, romantic, and heroic throughout the years, but this is the first time that he’s been flat-out hysterical. He maintains the urbane sophistication that has marked so much of his work but tempers it with wry commentary, bursts of manic energy, and occasionally foul-mouthed exclamations. (His reaction to learning of the murder of another character is unprintable here but elicited gales of laughter throughout the theatre.) Add to it his delightful chemistry with young Revolori and you have an onscreen duo to rival one of Anderson’s best – that between Max Fischer and Herman Blume in Rushmore. While Gustave mentors Zero, Zero brings out a new side of Gustave, allowing him to find a compassion and loyalty that adds deeper meaning to the story the adult Zero shares with the Writer.
The Grand Budapest Hotel may be Anderson’s funniest film, filled with ridiculous characters and zany moments, with much of the humor rooted in absurdist violence (such as a man having his fingers chopped off). There are times when I felt odd laughing at moments that would be shocking and horrifying in another director’s hands, but the wink with which Anderson presents these moments leaves you helpless with giggles. Anderson knows these moments are awkward and disconcerting, but his choice to have the characters share in that awkwardness and even comment on the absurdity tempers everything with tremendous wit and skill. Hours later, the friends with whom I saw the film were still giggling over things that in another film would have caused at least one of them to leave the theatre in horrified anger.
Anderson’s films are not for everyone. Some dismiss his stuff as pretentious hipster fare. Others find the dryness of his wit dull and lifeless or accuse him of putting style over substance. For me, though, Anderson is one of the finest auteurs working in contemporary cinema; one who creates gorgeous storybooks of film filled with flawed, eccentric characters who aren’t concerned with convention or even likability but rather finding their foothold on life’s eternal challenges. The couple of hours spent inside Anderson’s world are delicious and comforting, and The Grand Budapest Hotel rolls out the welcome mat with pure charm and wit.