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The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 14, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel

I was not an early adopter of Wes Anderson fandom, but Moonrise Kingdom felt like a breakthrough into a certain effortless greatness. And now Anderson has followed that up with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which sets another high-water mark for the director in my book.

For the most part, this is a story about the titular hotel, high in the mountains of Zubrowka on the Eastern edge of Europe, in the twilight of its greatness, in 1932, but this story is embedded in many framing layers. In the present, a teenage girl sits in front of a bust of an esteemed Zubrowkian author, reading one of his novels.

We shift to the author himself (Tom Wilkinson), telling us how he came by this story, when he was staying in the broken-down Grand Budapest in 1968. At that time, it was remodeled and refurbished in Stalinist style, but it was still privately owned. The young writer (Jude Law) in fact made the acquaintance of the aged owner, one Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). And one night, over dinner, Zero told the writer the story of how he came into his position.

We now — and finally — shift to 1932, with the Grand Budapest restored as a great, pink wedding-cake of a building, high in the mountains, serviced by a funicular we see animated in miniature. The hotel is managed by its concierge, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a faintly ridiculous impressario, drenched in “Eau du Panache”, swishing his way into the lives of his best customers, and spouting romantic poetry at the drop of a hat. And at the other end of the staff we meet the new lobby boy, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) with experience, education, and family to match his name.

Zero endears himself to Gustave, and when the wealthy dowager Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton) dies mysteriously, it is Zero who accompanies Gustave to her manor as a personal valet. When the fragmentary will is read by her executor, Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), it seems that she has left Boy with Apple — a fantastically valuable painting — to Gustave, much to the chagrin of her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and his enforcer, Jopling (Willem Dafoe).

Gustave steals the painting and hides it back at the Grand Budapest, after which he is quickly arrested, not for the theft, but under suspicion of the murder of Mme. D. Moustafa must — with the help of his pastry-making fiancée Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) — assist in Gustave’s escape and subsequent attempts to clear his name.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of a nation sliding down into totalitarianism. It has little overt impact on the arc of the story, but it certainly must weigh on Gustave; his mania for the grandeur of the hotel is driven in part by the recognition that it will soon slip away, to be placed in an orange-shag-carpet-lined concrete box and shelved away from popular memory. Moustafa knows this even better, having already lost his home and family to the encroaching war. Beauty and elegance — even to the point of absurdity — need to be defended against the ravages of a progressive cultural descent.

These are some pretty heavy ideas, and they balance against Anderson’s whimsy that suffuses the entire film. In a way, it’s this balance that keeps Anderson’s playfulness from turning impish, smug and self-satisfied as his earlier films often do. It is a light and often hilarious film, whipped up around Fiennes’ marvelous performance, but there is something substantial and savory below all this sweet meringue.

Gustave is a clear stand-in for the director himself, fussily arranging for every detail to be taken care of. His precision with everything down to the ashtrays is both reflected in and framed by Anderson’s meticulously arranged shots. Everything is geometrically organized in right angles and vanishing lines connecting the corners of the screen to the center. The camera glides in long, straight tracks along hallways, and whips around a crisp ninety degrees at a time. Every shot is as perfectly set as the tables in the Grand Budapest itself.

The trend in cinema, it would seem, is towards broader tastes and less care for detail and craft. Even last year’s bumper crop of great films was marked more by powerful storytelling than by an exquisite attention to minutiæ. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson uses his obsessive craftsmanship to bring out the wonder and spectacle of a bygone era.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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