Let me start by saying that The Grand Budapest Hotel, even though it is only March, is surely going to be my favorite film of the year. Now that I think about it, it’s probably my favorite film of the decade, so far. In Wes Anderson’s career it is his triumph, so far, a film that hits all the desired points with alacrity–laughter, poignancy, death, fear.
It should also be said that it is thoroughly a Wes Anderson film. For those who find him unbearably precious, you may be sent from the theater screaming. We get all his tropes–the fussy attention to detail, the use of a static camera as figures run across it, the use of title cards, the bold use of Crayola colors (a shot of a people in a crowded elevator painted fire-engine red may be the quintessential Anderson shot).
But this film has much more gravitas than other of his films. Many of his films confront death–The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited–but this is more. The Grand Budapest could be said to be about the death of a way of life.
The titular hotel is set high in the mountains of Zubrowka, a (fictional) Eastern European nation. Many reviews have said that the story is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, but there is even one more layer, so it is like a Russian nesting doll. It begins with a young girl reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel next to the grave of its author (which is decorated with hotel keys). We then see that author (Tom Wilkinson) recording his thoughts on the book. He takes us back to the 1960s, when his younger self (Jude Law), visiting the hotel, which now looks like a concrete bunker, and befriending the owner (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Abraham tells Law the story of how he came to own the hotel. As Abraham says, it all starts with M. Gustave.
We then go back to 1932, when the hotel looks like a wedding cake. The concierge is Gustave H., played with an amazing flourish by Ralph Fiennes. He is training a new lobby boy, Zero, (Tony Revolori), who is the younger version of Abraham. There is a rather intricate plot involving a murdered dowager, a painting, and a murderous bodyguard, but that is really all beside the point. What’s important is the character of Gustave, the loyalty between he and Zero, and the drumbeats of war.
Anderson has a lot of fun creating a fictional Tyrolean Alps, with funny German names, but the setting and time can’t be avoided–this is in pre-holocaust Europe. The signs are there–trains stopped at random, a demand to show papers, uniforms with lightning bolts on them. I laughed many times at this film, but I also felt uneasy. The clash between the unflappable dignity of Gustave and the inhumane horrors that are to come raise the hair on the back of the neck.
There are a host of other characters, many famous faces. Anderson uses many of his stock company, like Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Adrien Brody in small parts. In larger roles are Jeff Goldblum, Saorsie Ronan (as a bakery girl with a birthmark shaped like Mexico on her face–only Anderson could get away with something like that), Harvey Keitel, and Willem Dafoe as the merciless bodyguard (he throws a cat out a window). Murray is part of “The Society of Crossed Keys,” a wonderful concept of Anderson’s, a fellowship of concierges who use fancy phones to ring each other when another is in trouble.
But the movie is held blissfully aloft by Fiennes. What a heartbreaking, beautiful performance. I just so happened to see him a few days before as a vicious serial killer in Red Dragon, so what a display of range in less than a week. His Gustave is one of the great character of recent film, a gallant and civilized man who has a weakness for perfume and a convivial sense of honor. He is imprisoned for the murder of the dowager, whom he has slept him: “I sleep with all my friends.” When Zero goes to visit him, he sees that his face has been damaged by fisticuffs. Zeo asks him what happened. “What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living shit out of a
sniveling little runt called Pinky Bandinski. You should take a long
look at his ugly mug this morning. He’s actually become a dear friend.”
That’s the essence of Gustave–he’s at home with the crowned heads of Europe or prisoners. He is sort of like Zero Mostel in The Producers–he gives old ladies their last thrill–but he doesn’t do it for monetary gain as much as he does to give–and receive–love. This is much like the film itself, which bathed me in a kind of love, the kind that I don’t often feel in movie houses.
My grade for The Grand Budapest Hotel: A.