Featuring an undercurrent of death, the looming menace of fascism and wrapped in a century’s worth of nostalgia, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel stands as yet another brilliant masterstroke of colorful cinema hiding a profound affection for humanity by the American director. Despite what you might think, Anderson has not forgotten his sense of humor. Although, at some points in the film, you may feel confused about whether to laugh or cringe at the events that befall these poor characters at a break-neck, deadpan pace.
The key to the film lies in memory. It plays a central role in how the action unfolds. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in the modern world with a young, “edgy” girl paying tribute to a monument devoted to an unnamed “author.” Then the film travels to the memory of that author alive in 1985 and his reflecting on his younger years in 1968 and a story he was once told about a 1933-era concierge. Anderson wryly uses various aspect ratios to denote the different times, or better put: layers of memory. The music of Alexandre Desplat has an appropriately ghostly quality throughout the film. On many occasions bells and chimes echo, drums hiss with brushes and vibrant zithers tremolo. And, no, there are no catchy ’60s Brit-pop songs thrown into the mix. Once again, Anderson has created a different kind of film, albeit one from his very particular world (See also: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’: a different kind of Wes Anderson film).
Then, of course, there is the mise-en-scène and colors, a sort of hyper-reality featuring pinks, purples and reds. The titular hotel, situated in the made-up country of Zubrowka, during the key era of the 4:3 aspect ratio (the 1930s), gleams with opulence. Anderson’s restlessly panning camera lens has never felt more alive than in this beautifully designed environment that looks like a life-size doll house, and Robert D. Yeoman’s cinematography slurps it all to luscious effect.
Finally, the characters: Our hero, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes acting as if he were a born Anderson player), displays an amazing, if sometimes questionable, work ethic at the distinguished hotel. Though war is looming, his main concern is to serve— and service— the many elderly women who seem to vacation at the hotel. Fiennes’ dry delivery of Anderson’s quippy dialogue both reflects Gustave’s incredible seriousness while concealing a singular sort of solitude. His gregariousness directed toward older women and his passion for his job is complimented with an effeteness that is never wholly confirmed, left unfulfilled. It highlights his lonely existence. On his own, he practically lives and sleeps in nothing but a broom closet.
All around Gustave is a rich cast of characters who never take away too much presence from this wonderfully rich yet solitary character. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe play sinister fellows dressed in black. Meanwhile, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori play young innocents in puppy love. In between all manner of people appear and sometimes die off, Jeff Goldblum’s attorney Kovacs is met one particularly gruesome end, preceded by a minor bit of dismemberment dealt by the often sneering and silent Jopling (Dafoe).
The film’s plot is loose but has a caper-like quality involving an inheritance, a priceless painting and murder. There are jail breaks and chases. Anderson’s new-found affection for action sequences played out by animation and puppets fits the times where much of the action unfolds. The archaic special effects, just like the square aspect ratio, speak to the era. That these thrilling sequences still feel compelling, though almost laughably phony, proves the realism of digital effects overrated. The Grand Budapest Hotel is so richly staged and its characters feel so compelling, you will become rapt in the suspense regardless, just as you would watching a classic film from that time.
Ultimately, though, it’s the character of Gustave who embodies the hotel in its heyday and seems to resonate with a vividness that gives the film an immutable luster. He holds the movie together in all its topsy-turvy madness to ultimately celebrate true, honest, steadfast character. Because he stands as a man alone, he builds respectful relationships and allegiances. It’s a romantic notion to think anyone, though, goes off into the sunset with anybody else, but there’s always the heart and memory. Like all good things, we know the Grand Budapest will fall into languor once his presence disappears, but those stories will forever live on and matter to these characters in this oddly sincere world where malice can never have the last say.
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Note: I interviewed actor Ralph Fiennes ahead of the film’s release. You can read my full interview with him on the art and culture blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the image below:
The Grand Budapest hotel runs 100 minutes and is rated R (there are a few shocks in sex and violence and some intense language). Fox Searchlight Pictures invited me to a preview screening last month for the purpose of the interview and this review. The film opens in wide release today.
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)