The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Dir. Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan
I think that Wes Anderson is one of the more polarizing filmmakers working today. He has achieved a distinct and instantly recognizable visual and narrative style over the course of his twenty-year career, and is often recognized by contemporary critics as a visionary and important filmmaker, but it seems to me that when I talk about his movies with people in the real world, they don’t share this universal admiration. Anderson’s films seem to engender a love it or hate it reaction, with many people I’ve met finding his aesthetic to be too twee, too precious, and too affected. To them, Anderson is the quintessential hipster director, making ironic and precocious art meant to be taken seriously by those for whom cultivating a perfect vinyl collection and sourcing the best knit fabrics for a sweater vest are matters of grave concern. Conversely, I’ve met an equal number of people who feel that Anderson’s humor and sensibilities reflect the sarcastic, wry, and ironic zeitgeist of the 21st century, and that his vintage aesthetics and concern with evoking a sense of place in time through mise-en-scene and music are perfect for a digital age in which nostalgia is only a click away. I find myself firmly in the latter camp, having been a fan of Anderson since the late 1990s, but I suppose that I can see why some people can’t seem to penetrate his filmography and have trouble relating to his movies. One thing that I think shouldn’t be up for much debate, even among those Anderson detractors, is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great movie. It marks Anderson at the height of his powers, and seeing one of the last quarter century’s most important and recognizable auteurs turning in a masterpiece is what makes it one of the greatest movies of the young 21st century.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nesting doll of a caper that unfolds over several distinctive period settings, telling the history of the titular hotel and its staff and inhabitants. The tale is related by the hotel’s proprietor, the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and it centers on his arrival at the Grand Budapest Hotel where he gained employment as a lobby boy under the supervision of the hotel’s famed concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes). The young Moustafa, whose first name is Zero (Revolori), shows promise as a lobby boy and Gustave takes him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of hospitality. Shortly after Zero begins his employment at the Grand Budapest, Gustave receives notice that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of his many elderly paramours, has died under mysterious circumstances, and he and Zero travel by train to her estate to witness the reading of her will. Madame D. wills Gustave a priceless painting, enraging her family, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Zero and Gustave are able to safely return the painting to the Grand Budapest, Dmitri frames Gustave for his mother’s murder and he is subsequently jailed. Gustave manages to escape from prison with the help of his fellow inmates, and also Zero and his new fiancée, Agatha (Ronan), a baker’s apprentice with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. Zero and Gustave then set off to find the identity of Madame D.’s true killer, and, so doing, clear M. Gustave’s name.
The Grand Budapest Hotel takes many of Anderson’s directorial quirks and dials them up to 11. It’s certainly a treat for the initiated, but I think that it’s also a film that can be enjoyed by just about any fan of movies. While it features much of Anderson’s stock cast, and expands upon his visual and narrative style, Grand Budapest sticks out among Anderson’s filmography as somewhat less precious and precocious. Though the Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most exquisitely realized dollhouses come to life, the story that he tells about the hotel and its inhabitants is darker, more action-oriented, and more steeped in actual history than any of Anderson’s earlier films. In Grand Budapest it seems that Anderson has managed to adhere his style onto a skeleton of classical Hollywood references and a more traditional structure. Though he still utilizes familiar cutaways, intertitles, and meticulously crafted miniatures, Anderson eschews some of his other trademarks, such as his frequent use of 1960s and 1970s pop music for the soundtrack. This pairing of Anderson’s whimsical tendencies with more traditional, grounded influences is a marriage for success, and makes for Anderson’s richest, most cinematically rewarding film.
Another way that Anderson deviates from his established norms is by sidelining the majority of his stock cast of actors. While Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson all appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, they, and many other Anderson regulars, take a backseat to a trio of actors who are making their first appearances in a Wes Anderson film, led by Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. I’m not overly familiar with Fiennes body of work as an actor, aside from some of the obvious roles that he’s most well-known for, but this is my favorite performance of his. He completely plays against his usual type, playing Gustave as a somewhat effete, surprisingly capable, and mildly authoritarian figure. He is the efficient center of power that propels the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fiennes’s performance is the celestial body around which all of the other elements of the film’s universe orbit. He embodies the Old World elegance that is beginning to fade from existence in the time period Anderson depicts in the film. Fiennes’s clipped delivery and quick wit help to inform the film’s sense of humor and reflect the incredibly efficient pacing that the film adopts in its second half. Once The Grand Budapest Hotel goes into full caper mode, it’s propelled by the energy of Fiennes’s Gustave, and drops its mannered comedy for a full screwball turn. His performance is a delight to watch and the movie would likely wouldn’t work as well as it does with another actor in its most prominent role.
If Fiennes is the propulsive engine driving the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel forward, then Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan give it its emotional depth, and the romance shared by their young characters, Zero and Agatha, provides its beating heart. I’m fairly certain that this movie was the first time I’d seen either actor in anything, and I can remember leaving the theater really impressed with both of them, but particularly with Revolori. His performance provides the film with much of its physical comedy, with his large eyes and expressive face often giving humorous counterpoint to the antics going on around Zero. Though the lobby boy is fairly meek, when the chips are down and his friends are threatened, Zero draws from a well of strength and comes through to protect them. Ronan provides a steadying presence in the film, balancing the energy of Fiennes and Revolori with her more grounded performance. Agatha is resourceful and smart, and Ronan imbues her with a natural goodness that makes it easy to see why Zero would fall head over heels for her. Though both characters are endowed with obvious Anderson-ian affectations – Zero’s penciled on mustache and Agatha’s birthmark in the shape of Mexico – the young actors’ performances shine through. They both radiate kindness and affection, and their characters’ dedication to one another, and to M. Gustave, is the glue holding the film together.
The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a shift in Anderson’s sensibilities towards a slightly less cynical tone and point of view. Much like in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson allows young actors to explore and express more genuine displays of affection and romantic love than are present in his first few films. Whereas in movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, romantic love is viewed extremely suspiciously, and in nearly all of Anderson’s films up to and including The Darjeeling Limited, familial love is basically nonexistent, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see an example of a truly powerful love between Zero and Agatha, and a functioning surrogate family formed between the two of them and M. Gustave. This shift is likely a product of Anderson simply maturing and his views on love and life changing as he has evolved as a person and an artist. In Grand Budapest Hotel the romantic subplot and the film’s occasionally raw emotionality provide an inroad for viewers who might have trouble connecting with Anderson’s earlier, more ironic output. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still very much a “Wes Anderson movie,” and for all of the deviations from what might seem to be his stock pallet, Anderson hasn’t changed his formula, so much as enriched and perfected it. It’s a movie that checks off all of the requisite boxes for me, both as a fan of Wes Anderson and as a fan of cinema, in general. The world building here is typically rich, and that world is peopled by some of Anderson’s most memorable, relatable, and tragic characters to date. The stakes in the film seem high, and Anderson proves himself more capable of creating narrative tension and directing visual action scenes than he previously had in his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a big step forward in artistry for one of my favorite, and, objectively, one of the best, filmmakers of the early 21st century. It’s both a pleasant diversion and a film that rewards multiple viewings, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has an interest in cinema.