Sunday, 6 April 2014

This Barbaric Slaughterhouse That Was Once Known as Humanity: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

I’ve only seen Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel once at the time of writing this piece but I feel the film may be Anderson’s greatest accomplishment yet as a filmmaker. To be fair, I haven’t seen The Darjeeling Limited (2007) yet and I do need to revisit The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which I saw at an age when I was too young to completely appreciate the style of Anderson’s filmmaking. Nevertheless The Grand Budapest Hotel is a triumph- a film that-like all of Anderson’s work- crafts a fully realized world of artificiality while still creating a sense of poignancy that deepens the whole experience  

The film is told through layers of narrative- Inception done Anderson style. A female student in the present comes to a cemetery to see a monument dedicated to a writer. She begins reading the authors’ memoir and we’re sent back to 1985 where the author (Tom Wilkinson) begins talking about the story he’s about to tell. Then we’re in 1968 where we meet the younger version of the author (Jude Law), who talks about his trip to the Grand Budapest Hotel.  The hotel is no longer the glamorous and luxurious place it used to be and the author meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel. During dinner the Moustafa tells the author about his early years as the lobby boy to the Hotel’s concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). We’re whisked back to 1932 where Zero (Tony Revolori) and Gustave become embroiled in a complex plot involving a dead widow/one of Gustave’s lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), her prized portrait that Gustave steals, Gustave being framed for murder, a prison break, and Madame D.’s son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) who also wants the painting. Willem Dafoe also shows up as an assassin.  

For me personally I became a little lost in regards to the plot. Maybe I’m just too dense or maybe the Anderson’s goal is to create a somewhat vague plot. There is one hilarious moment when Gustave, after breaking out of prison violently asks Serge X (Mathieu Amaliric) - the D. Family butler- “What the f—k is going on.” It’s a somewhat meta-moment that highlights the ridiculousness of the plot and how the characters we’re dealing with aren’t exactly any clearer on the proceedings than the audience.  

Ultimately I don’t think the plot really matters. What does matter is the escalation of absurdity and violence, constantly keeping the audience on its toe to what surprise or shock is right around the corner. The film is essentially a farce but Anderson’s craftsmanship makes it so the film transcending merely being a farce. The pure joy of the film is so seductive and infectious that I could have watched the film for another hour.  Anderson is one of the select filmmakers that have truly created their own cinematic world- Anderson’s filmography is essentially a sandbox in which he can play in. I know many don’t like and resist Anderson’s style- and also don’t like him using similar aesthetics in each film. But while all of Anderson’s films-with the exception of his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996) – have a recognizable visual style and tone, Anderson- to me at least- never seems to tell the same story twice. As I said Anderson’s world is a sandbox and while his films have familiar surroundings he always tells a unique and charming story each time out.

Anderson is one of the most meticulous filmmakers working right now. His shot compositions often are perfectly symmetrical- Anderson often seems like a warmer Stanley Kubrick.  Almost every shot in this film is one you want to live in. Anderson’s films are perfect for the DVD generation- there’s so much detail that you can’t catch everything on first viewing. And many shots you want to- and pardon the cliché- hang up as painting. A fascinating visual element of this film is how it shifts between different aspect ratios- 1:37:1 for the 30s scenes, 2:35:1 for the 60s scenes and 1:85:1 for the present day scenes. The aspect ratio for the 30s works very well with Anderson’s compositions which already have a boxed in quality. The change in aspect ratio reflects how films were framed throughout history. They also reflect the story’s different layers and make the time frames feel like individual worlds.    

The film’s multiple layers present us with Anderson’s commentary on how story telling is all about layers or to put it this way- storytelling is about passing down stories over time. The young student- for all we know- has never met the author or the elderly Zero- and definitely not Gustave-but through the authors’ work she gets a glimpse in to the past- or at least a version of the past. Maybe that’s the whole point. We only see the past through Zero’s memories, which may be why these events seem to exist in such a heightened reality.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, for me, is a very nostalgic film- told through the eyes of a man (Zero) who was there when a hotel was majestic and another man (the author) when it was past its glory days but still held on to by Zero. But it’s also one that acknowledges how- in respect to Gustave- the old world in which some feel they have lived may have already been long gone before they even entered the world.  Like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), The Grand Budapest Hotel suggests that the idea of a “golden age” is just that- an idea rather than something that actually exists or existed. Gustave may have been the last representation of something glorious and is now gone forever.

Zero’s nostalgic connection to the hotel has less to do with its ties to a long lost world than with its association with Agatha (Saorise Ronan), the girl who works at Mendl’s, a pastry shop beloved by Gustave. Agatha became the love of Zero’s life and while I won’t reveal what exactly happened to Agatha, Zero’s explanation of why he’s kept the hotel all this time is incredibly poignant and sweet in its simplicity- and brings to mind the happiness that we all wish to share with someone in our lives, in only for a short time. Ronan’s lovely and beautiful presence makes us believe in Zero’s love for Agatha, and we can see ourselves falling in love with her too.

Ronan is one part of a large ensemble cast that fills out this universe and gives it texture.Many of these actors are Anderon regulars- along with many several new faces, like Fiennes. Fiennes is the standout here, giving a dryly funny performance, presenting us with a man both debonair and somewhat clueless.

My only complaint about the film is- similar to Anderson’s previous film Moonrise Kingdom, my favourite film of 2012- there’s a bit of animal cruelty that felt a little too dark. That and some of the violence felt a little too jarring in this universe.

On a closing note, I can see The Grand Budapest Hotel becoming a beloved classic as the years go by. Like Anderson’s other films there’s timeless quality to the film. It’s bittersweet and ultimately tragic but still manages to be one of the most joyous experiences I’ve had at the movies in quite some time.


  1. Good review! I didn't love The Grand Budapest Hotel quite as much Moonrise Kingdom, but I agree it was a solid and entertaining effort from Anderson. I also found it more sad than joyous; those final scenes are rather depressing, in my opinion.

    In any case, I think you touched on the same thing I noticed when I saw the film. Specifically, I don't think it's a coincidence that you found the plot obscure and confusing. I think this was all part of Anderson's intention. In my review, I took the idea of nostalgia that you brought up and merged it with the film's relative intangibility. I posited that Gustave is a stand-in for Anderson.

    By the film's end, I think Anderson/Gustave really do still believe there was a golden age and that they were simply born in the wrong time period. But unlike Midnight in Paris, where Allen heavily implies that Gil needs to embrace the romantic aspects of modern day, Anderson never suggests Gustave was wrong for living in the past. In fact, he seems to empathize with him. He paints Gustave as a tragic character, and laments the loss of a "better age" by painting the future as bland, drab, and soulless.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I like the idea of Gustave being Anderson's stand in. That makes a lot of sense. And you're right- Anderson does seem to embrace the romanticism of the past- or an idea of the past at least.