Wes Anderson’s career is marked by obsession—something his ardent fans would be happy to point out. Most apparent is his aesthetic: precisely colored concoctions in perfect symmetry, tied together with seamless crane and tracking shots. But the characters and narratives in his films have been just as recurrent. Besides his cast of common actors (nearly all of whom make an appearance in his newest), the characters he builds tend to cast similar shadows, particularly the older men who dominate most of his films. Be it Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, or even Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson is fascinated with charismatic older assholes, past their prime but still charming. These egotistical, immature scoundrels are all vestiges of another time—Anderson clearly holds the Victorian era in high esteem, but whatever era they come from, his inadvertent protagonists have seen the world change around them. Grand Budapest Hotel’s central figure is no exception; the vain, perfumed, and effeminate M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) can charm with the best of them, but he is a wistful remnant of the Belle Epoch, muttering more than once, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”
Director: Wes Anderson
Producers: Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven M. Rales, Scott Rudin
Writers: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Cinematographer: Robert D. Yeoman
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori
Premiere: February 6, 2014 – Berlin Film Festival
US Release: March 7, 2014
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s story centers around its eponymous institution, the magnificent mountaintop edifice (only accessible via ludicrous cable car) that stands as the symbol of the utopian Europe that was, before the horror of the Great War. The Hotel is located in the fictional country of Zubrowka (named after a brand of Polish vodka) in Central Europe, sharing a border with Germany. Its pastel-painted walls, purple-suited staff, and all-around decadence and grandiosity make the hotel resemble a wedding cake, echoed by frequent insertions of real cakes from Mendl’s, the small confectioner in the town below the Hotel. It’s a beautiful and haunting place even when full, but when empty it is almost as cavernous as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. The film begins in flashback (in flashback, in flashback) and the way we learn about the Hotel’s history and development makes it into a dynamic character, reminiscent of comic books by Chris Ware—tales which track characters through the buildings they occupy over time, telling interlocking stories of the dozens of people who have lived in a place.
That is not to say that the characters aren’t important too. This film is full of traditional Wes Anderson fare: an indifferent, cigarette-smoking Jason Schwartzman; a straight-talking, sociopathic Adrian Brody; an overly affectionate Tilda Swinton; and of course, a retinue of uniform-clad individuals, from elevator operators and hotel attendants to German military officers. At its center is M. Gustave H., the head concierge of the Grand Budapest, who leads and inspires the whole staff, delivering speeches with each of their shift dinners along with 40-stanza poems, and seducing every rich old woman who steps foot in the establishment. It seems that at the heart of the Grand Budapest’s appeal is a relationship close to prostitution where countless older women come to consort with M. Gustave. The whole story is told (in one of its several framing flashbacks) by Zero Mustapha, who is played as an old man by F. Murray Abraham and as a boy by Tony Revolori. Zero figures into our tale as Gustave’s newest hire, an earnest and overly mature lad who accompanies Gustave on his adventures as his trusty Lobby Boy, a role that has a little twinge of Batman and Robin.
As the plot thickens (a murder! a will! a valuable painting!) their relationship develops into more than a paternalistic one, building genuine respect and affection. This is an overtly idealized story—told as it is, as a story within a story—but even with that requisite grain of salt, their friendship is heartwarming. Their adventure is a grand one, as they race across Europe in search of a murder witness trailed by a psychotic thug (Willem Dafoe). This allows Anderson room for homage to all of his favorite directors. For much of his career, the bright colors and careful framings of his films have been reminiscent of the French New Wave, but in Grand Budapest he pays tribute to their predecessors with shots seemingly lifted from Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937) and a sequence (and set) nearly identical to Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). Murder and violence may seem alien to Anderson’s ticky-tack world, but he pulls them off with aplomb, achieving some genuine shock and awe and compelling moments of suspense. By the film’s conclusion, the story is so intricate and carefully constructed, and the Gustave-Zero relationship so magnetic, that even the most fervent detractors of Anderson’s work will be sucked in.
In many ways, this is Wes Anderson’s most tightly controlled film, his aesthetic and performative sensibilities engraved into every frame. But in that control is a vivacity, a real living story that can escape the limitations of a twee aesthetic. Like the best of Tarantino’s films (and this one frequently has flashes of Inglorious Basterds) the story is so tightly controlled that it escapes the bounds of its cartoony exterior and takes on a life of its own. And in that way it resembles none of the rest of his work. Though most of his films are impressive, all dwell in the world of prep schools and fancy dinner parties, where violence is something you see portrayed at the theater (or do to yourself as a cry for help), not an unshakable reality of the world outside. Here Gustave is thrust into a violent world, and the film is better for it.