‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is by far the finest cinematic achievement of 2014. If I was to pick my favorite moment (in a film filled with many wonderful moments – hardly a moment went by when I wasn’t smiling), it would be the scene where the prison inmates escape by using miniature sledgehammers, and pickaxes that were smuggled past prison officials inside fancy frosted pastries. If I could describe this scene (or the entire film) in two words: joyous artifice. If this sounds like a Wes Anderson picture, that is because it is.
On the surface, this is a comic caper that defies description. But, it’s a story about storytelling. It’s 1985, and we see a young girl carrying a book called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Then we see a status of that very writer; following this, we see the writer as an old man (Tom Wilkinson) telling the story behind the story to a documentary crew. Then, we jump back nearly twenty years when he (Jude Law) arrived at the one-time glamorous but now fading Grand Budapest Hotel situated in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. He ends up having dinner with the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how we came to run the place (the story that would later become the novel). Rewind back to 1932 when Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) was the new lobby boy working under the strict command of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). M. Gustave not only keeps the hotel and its staff in tiptop shape but also attends to the needs of his clientele – this includes fulfilling the bedroom desires of 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton).
When she ends up dead (her death sets everything else in motion), Gustave learns from her attorney (Jeff Goldblum) that he has inherited a priceless painting. This news doesn’t sit well with her adult son Dmitri (Adrien Brody); and there’s a cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to make sure Gustave never gets it. But, Gustave and Zero manage to grab the painting and return to the hotel; at this point, Gustave is framed for her murder. Other players enter: Agatha (Saorise Ronan), an apprentice in Zubrowka’s pre-eminent bakery, Captain Henckels (Edward Norton), the military police chief after Gustave and Zero. The excellent cast also includes Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, and Anderson devotees such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson.
All of this material is presented in standard Wes Anderson style, which is to say, there is nothing standard about it. The recursive story-within-a-story structure signifies the importance of storytelling, or at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. The filmmaking consists of densely packed compositions and framing, meticulously composed and designed shots, precise and detailed traveling shots to supplement his ingenious and oddly practical imagination, and action sequences absent of digital wizardry in favor of something more old school. The story itself is presented in narrow, orthogonal dimensions that are reminiscent of the films of its 1930s setting. Or at least a third of it; actually, the film presents us with three different layers of history. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is set in three different time periods: present day 1980s, 1960s, and 1930s – early 1940s. Anderson switches between three different aspect ratios so we know where we are (1.85 in the 1980s, 2.40 in the 1960s, and 1.37 in the 1930s-1940s).
Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. Even with a reasonably short runtime of 100 minutes, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Anderson’s most ambitious undertaking yet. In tackling a complicated section of 20th century European history, and by merging playfulness and humor with some serious and ugly history, Anderson is tasked with the challenge of maintaining tone, but the balance between comedy and drama is perfect. His style has become so distinct and evolved that revisiting his debut feature ‘Bottle Rocket’ will have you thinking “This doesn’t quite feel like Wes Anderson yet.”
For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. Despite its setting, the dialogue is contemporary American. (Almost) no one bothers with European accents – this only adds to the film’s playful absurdity. For some reason, Gustave has an English accent (though his character is modeled after an Austrian). Fiennes’ performance is brilliant; downright hilarious when he needs to be, yes, but his angry outbursts only allude to the darkness of this period. Anderson’s last two efforts had an MPAA PG-13 rating – this one has an MPAA R-rating and so the screenplay offers up plenty of naughty words, naughty deeds, grisly slapstick, and a cat is thrown out the window (well, in ‘The Royal Tenanbaums’, a beagle is flatted by a sports car and a dog is shot with an arrow in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’). These elements don’t sit well with everyone and a cheap argument can be made about how Anderson dislikes pets. But I admire him for having the courage to “bring these pets into the equation” (his words to a Toronto Star reporter). Don’t animals face the same cruel world we humans do?
The movie credits the writings of Stefan Zweig, the Viennese writer whose memoir ‘The World of Yesterday’ was the film’s inspiration. I’m not the least bit familiar with Zweig’s work (and clearly, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoying the heck out of this picture).
On more than one occasion, Gustave speaks of a “glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we now know as humanity.” He is a fierce survivor. In real-world 1930s, places akin to Zubrowka were on the brink of barbarity and carnage, essentially surviving as an object of nostalgic longing – this longing is embraced by Mr. Anderson. Secondary settings include a muggy prison, a sublime bakeshop, the railway (and other steam-powered modes of transportation); objects (physical and intellectual): telegrams, handmade luggage, paintings, poetry, and psychoanalysis. Anderson captures the strange essence of a bygone world.
The movie is a blast, yes. But, it’s at the service of something more substantial. Others may feel differently, but I can admire the use of comedy as a means of opposition against political oppression. There is a lot going on in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ – Anderson has conjured a world which is subject to tensions that exist on the outset. We don’t see Hitler or Stalin; for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist in this world. But, offhand references to tragic occurrences call attention to the unseen; the darkness that exists outside the frame. And this tension is reflected within the Gustave character – his refined appearance masks some adolescent vulgarity, and angry outbursts, eluding to the darkness of the period. This isn’t real life, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a mostly tasty pasty; that is until, we discover the corrosive properties contained within the bottom layer.
‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Wes Anderson’s eighth feature and I think it is best since ‘Rushmore’. I was charmed (as I usually am with his work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. Here’s to the best film of the year so far. QED.