The Grand Budapest Hotel

| March 24, 2014

Wes Anderson is perhaps best known to both his ardent fans and hateful detractors for using each of his films to create little shoebox-diorama worlds in which his characters, speaking in cadences now as familiar as those of Hal Hartley’s, deal with class issues and any number of Anderson’s other narrative preoccupations. Sometimes this is literal: see the cutaways of the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic, the titular Darjeeling Limited, and much of the world of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. With each film, Anderson’s obsessive attention to detail has become more and more focused, resulting in Moonrise Kingdom, a film that took place entirely in a small geographic area that Anderson fleshed out so thoroughly and carefully that it may as well have been real. Moonrise Kingdom was perhaps the logical culmination of Anderson’s style leading up to that point in a way that made it difficult to imagine where he would go next. As it happens, The Grand Budapest Hotel continues to deal with all of Anderson’s obsessions, but exponentially widens the increasingly narrow scope of his previous films to encompass an entire alternate history Europe, with an impressive ensemble cast led by Ralph Fiennes in one of Anderson’s most fully-realized characters yet.

The film opens with a series of framing devices. The first introduces the audience to a young girl visiting the Old Lutz Cemetery in the small country of Zubrowka (“Once the seat of an empire,” an opening title card explains) to hang a hotel key on the headstone of the Author of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which she has brought along to read. Anderson then segues into the Author (Tom Wilkinson) in the 1980s, beginning to tell his story of his encounter with the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. From here, the film delves further, following the young Author (Jude Law) in the 1960s as he visits the hotel in hopes of treating a case of Scribe’s Fever, “a neurasthenia common among the intelligentsia of the day.” Here, he meets Zero Moustapha (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel. The Author asks Mr. Moustapha about how he came to buy the hotel, and Moustapha offers to tell the Author his story, which is where most of the action of the film takes place: Zubrowka, 1932, when Zero (Tony Revolori) worked as the Lobby Boy at the Grand Budapest hotel under the tutelage of its famous concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Once the stage is set, the story begins to quickly accumulate a large cast of characters and an increasingly complicated series of incidents, and anyone not paying careful attention may find themselves hopelessly lost in short order.

However, more so even than any of Anderson’s previous films, it is almost impossible to imagine any viewer not paying careful attention. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a gorgeously shot film, utilizing the cinema screen to mimic the style of images from different eras in film history and exploding with beautiful colors and carefully framed and choreographed shots and camera movements. The opening framing shots and 1980s are presented in a standard 1.85:1 “widescreen” aspect ratio used by most contemporary films. The 1960s are represented in the wider “scope” ratio of 2.35:1, and the 1932 section is presented in “Academy” (or “square”) aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Aside from the aspect ratios, each era is given a particular look through the use of different lenses, the present and 80s presented in relatively sharp detail, the run-down Grand Budapest of the 1960s shot with a softer image with an almost fisheye distortion around the edges, and the 1930s represented in deep focus and vibrant color. Anderson’s obsession with symmetrical composition is particularly well-suited to the 1.37:1 image, and nearly every frame of the film is flawlessly composed. The sound design of the film is just as intricate, and the constant forward movement of the storyline is propelled with Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, which incorporates sound effects accompanying the on-screen action in the musical cues. Any of Anderson’s detractors who find his previous work overly concerned with technique (or, less generously, “fussy”) will likely not be able to sit through 20 minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This is also due to the fact that more than ever before, every single tiny detail of everything in the frame of the film has Anderson’s stamp all over it. Signage, costuming, jewelry, newspapers, street cars, ashtrays, every conceivable object contributes to the utterly convincing illusion that this alternate-universe Europe exists and has been lived in for a very long time. The exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel itself is frequently represented by a beautifully false model, complete with lights and painted backdrops, while its interiors are jaw-dropping in their size and detail. However, here the hotel is just the centerpiece in a larger world, and each location is just as completely realized. Not only do these places and objects immediately call to mind Anderson’s aesthetic, but the film is thick with visual references and allusions to other films, filmmakers, and actors. The camera traveling through the Grand Budapest often calls to mind Kubrick’s steadicam explorations of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Willem Dafoe, as the menacing thug Jopling, has sharpened teeth and his face permanently set in a Boris Karloff grimace. The brilliant colors of the film bring to mind Powell & Pressburger, while Harvey Keitel brings a touch of hard-boiled film noir dialogue in his small role as a thoroughly tattooed inmate who helps Gustave during his incarceration.

Keitel is just one of many familiar faces who pop up throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson has populated the film with a cast of regulars as well as newcomers: Tilda Swinton appears in alarmingly convincing old-age makeup as Gustave’s lover Madame D., Adrien Brody plays Madame D.’s villainous son Dmitiri, Edward Norton all but reprises his scoutmaster role from Moonrise Kingdom as Military Inspector Henckels, Jeff Goldblum brings a humorous gravity to his role as Kovacs, the executor of Madame D.’s estate, Jason Schwartzman is great in a small part as the hotel’s 1960s concierge M. Jean, and Saoirse Ronan is well cast as Zero’s young love, a brave and inventive pastry chef. Young Zero is played with good-natured deadpan by Tony Revolori, but this is inarguably Ralph Fiennes’s show. His performance as Gustave is absolutely perfect, and he absolutely nails the depiction of a basically good-hearted man who presents the illusion of elegance while not actually being all that smart, or particularly principled in many ways. The relationship between Gustave and young Zero is genuine and touching, and indeed the film closes on a note of unexpected but entirely appropriate melancholy delivered expertly by F. Murray Abraham as the older Zero Moustapha (an interesting complement to his small but integral part in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis).

The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a huge leap forward for Anderson as a totally idiosyncratic filmmaker, a hugely ambitious film that could only have been made by Anderson. It is also a joyful celebration of cinema that is gorgeous, frantically paced, hilarious and surprisingly poignant. This will certainly be one of the best films of this year, and is arguably Anderson’s best film yet. Although his previous work had already established him as a hugely popular and important American filmmaker, The Grand Budapest Hotel cements Anderson’s reputation as one of the absolute best filmmakers currently working.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:
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