Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Perhaps more than any other working filmmaker, Wes Anderson directs his films down to the texture of each atom. This is not to say that his films are “realistic,” for they are consistently just one or two steps removed from reality, but the tactility of each film embodies an entire world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is his latest travail and, on the surface, his most lavishly realized film. As a period film set in the midst of European turmoil prior to WWII, it’s chocked full of visual and narrative intricacies but light on depth of character. Even if it gets by on charm alone, The Grand Budapest Hotel is also buried with deeper nostalgia, adding another distinguished chapter into Anderson’s canon.

The film commences its chronology in the fashion of a Russian nesting doll, as a young woman visits the grave of a famous author to pay her respects. In her hand is the book for which the film derives its title. The film then jumps back to the 1980s as the author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts his time visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s as a younger man (Jude Law). It was there that he happened to meet Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel, who in the 1930s was its premier lobby boy. In those days it was located in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, and the young lad was known as Zero (Tony Revolori), the pubescent protege of Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s concierge. M. Gustave was a legend among the hotel’s frequenters, especially elderly blonde women. When his most recent beau Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) unexpectedly dies, Gustave becomes the prime suspect of foul play, especially as he comes into inheritance of one the woman’s priceless paintings. Gustave puts both his and Zero’s lives in further jeopardy by stealing the painting, and catalyzing a mad dash to clear his name.

Once The Grand Budapest Hotel settles into its prewar chronology, it primarily stays there, save for dramatic beats that pull back to Moustafa’s storytelling. Given the zippy nature of the plot, there are dozens of set pieces and visual gags, yet it all feels rather episodic. Yes, there is a sense of urgency and intrigue that the film conveys, but it’s less sure in gauging the emotional temperatures of its characters. The film features Anderson’s largest ensemble to date, filled with familiar faces like Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, with other recent converts like Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, and Adrian Brody. The cast is bursting at the seams as much as their environments, and while they all have clever quips, they read more as charicatures than as recognizable people. Thankfully, the film’s focus on the relationship between Zero and Gustave bears more fruit. Purposefully stiff to fit his occupation, Tony Revolori is a decent foil to the emotional exactness coming from Fiennes, who gives one of his most memorable performances. Unfailingly tender and polite, yet masking a sly authority, Fiennes finds multiple layers in Gustave and creates Anderson’s best protagonist since Royal Tenenbaum.

As with his other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel capitalizes on production design, and effectively evokes different moods based upon time periods. In the brief contemporary scenes and in the hotel of the 1960s, there is a chilly and run down atmosphere, a distinct sense of an era long gone. It’s natural that the thriving 1930s are representative of Gustave in his prime, as the lavish reds of the carpets meet with his and Zero’s violet wardrobes. Since the story is somewhat fictional (based upon the writings of Stephan Zwieg), there are certain liberties taken in presenting prewar Europe. The Grand Budapest Hotel particularly portrays most of the exteriors as clearly shot on sound stages and  several establishing shots of the hotel and other buildings are lo-fi models. This is a Europe as imagined only by Anderson, and it remains endearing. While the symmetrical shot compositions and  lateral camera dollies are once again in his wheelhouse, Anderson also plays with aspect ratios, which change based on time period. If there’s a real standout in the film aside from Fiennes is Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score, whose snare drum tempo carries the film from end to end.

While there a great deal of “muchness” at work in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the prevailing sense of loss is what allows the film to linger after all of the hijinks fade from memory. The entire ensemble may not be composed of discernible individuals in fully believable situations, but they do represent a community. This is especially in evidence in a montage where Gustave calls for help and the other concierges around Europe come to his aid. Earlier on the elegant concierge has the impulse to make a statement about humanity during indecent times, but can’t care to finish his thought. Though fluffy in presentation, The Grand Budapest Hotel might not be Anderson’s statement on the human condition in times of war, but it does recall more frivolous times before everything came crashing down.

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~ by romancinema on March 17, 2014.

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