The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling slice of enchantment. It’s a tale wrapped up in a tale wrapped up in a tale. Try and explicate the nested account and its convoluted evolution threatens to implode upon itself. I’ll admit the chronicle is, shall we say, meticulous? Ok so naysayers might say tortured. If you‘re not already a Wes Anderson fan, this film won‘t change your mind. But for this aficionado of the auteur, the intricate set up was only the beginning of an exquisite yarn that had me captivated from the get-go.
We begin in the modern day with a young fan reading a book at the grave of a dead novelist. Zoom to 1985, the writer is played by Tom Wilkinson who recalls a time that he stayed at the hotel. We then flashback to 1968. That same writer is now Jude Law interacting with F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Zero Moustafa. As the hotel’s old owner, Moustafa reminisces about a time when the place was more opulent. Another flashback to a grander time, 1932 to be exact, where we meet the boyish Moustafa now played by Tony Revolori. The main narrative concerns the friendship that develops between M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), as the hotel’s respected concierge, and the youthful Moustafa who becomes his devoted protégé.
Have you marveled at the depth of acting talent on display? I’ve only barely begun to name-drop. Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are all present and accounted for. The latter’s presence in a Wes Anderson film shouldn’t be a surprise, yet his role as the concierge at Excelsior Palace, Grand Budapest’s rival hotel, was greeted with cheers of applause at my screening. Despite the expanded cast, everyone adds value. But I digress.
Wes Anderson has done a most noble thing. He has taken the fabric of a genuine reality and formed an alternate universe. His amalgamation alludes to history but manipulated to suit his romantic world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is located in the Republic of Zubrowka. I’d place the fictional European nation somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Hungary. The proper saga begins in 1932, a year when elections in Germany would appoint Hitler as the head of government. A time between the two world wars, still several years before the outbreak of WW2, Yet Germany, Hitler, Nazis and Jews are never mentioned. The SS for example is actually the ZZ — the Zig-Zags. The director has carefully fashioned a drama set within his impressionist vision of a country on the brink of war and the results are intoxicating.
The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel seemingly hinges on the fate of a priceless Renaissance painting. “Boy with Apple” is a key plot device credited to artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger, an entirely fictional construct. Once again Anderson’s attention to detail is impressive. The mannerist artwork is impressive in its own right, perhaps something attributed to Albrecht Dürer or Il Bronzino or Hans Holbein the Younger. I can’t decide which. At one point M. Gustave is bequeathed the valuable painting in the will of a wealthy old dowager who has died under mysterious circumstances. The objet d’art represents something over which everyone obsesses. When the canvas is removed from the wall, it’s replaced by a lewd watercolor that suggests Egon Schiele. It’s a hilarious visual joke. Ah but the piece isn’t the point at all. Its existence is really the MacGuffin if you will — an unimportant bit of nonsense deliberately constructed in the same playful spirit as everything else in Wes Anderson’s universe.
The composition of a scene has always taken precedence to actual story in a Wes Anderson picture, but here even more so. The ornate milieu is home to an offbeat comedy that focuses on a missing painting. But what makes the narrative so affecting isn’t the future of the portrait. It’s the fastidiously created world in which our characters live. I could spend pages explicating the distended cast. In the interest of brevity, I’ll merely disclose numero uno: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. As the hotel’s concierge, he is nattily attired and consistently perfumed. Then there is the hotel itself, a beautiful storybook creation that is the soul of the film. The stunning art nouveau palace is highlighted by a funicular and rows of columns. An edifice photographed with an eye for detail not seen since Stanley Kubrick’s ode to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Notice the red lacquer walls in the elevator or the pink pastels of countess Madame D.’s suite. Naturally the architecture is the director’s vision but it’s flawlessly presented through the work of cinematographer and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Robert D. Yeoman. One does not simply watch a Wes Anderson film as you would say a pot on the verge of a boil. No you experience it. The Grand Budapest Hotel is best appreciated as a work of art in which to luxuriate in the glorious ambiance of its fastidious charms.