By: Daniel Reynolds
The heroes of Wes Anderson films are always reflections of their environment, whether they would like to admit that or not. Captain Zissou lurched around his rusting ship careening aimlessly atop the ocean, Royal Tenenbaum had his musty manor, the Whitman brothers were emotionally railroaded along until wandering off into the Indian wilderness of hopeful personal discovery. In Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are presented with the remnants of a vast world contained within the confectionery design of an alpine hotel, a place that could only exist in the realm of Anderson. The central figure, a man of seemingly endless myth and mystery, is one Gustave H. What we see, through the layers of humour and ornate production, is the recounting of a man who clung to a way of life until his world had no more place for him.
Now, the structure of the world is one thing, the story another. Anderson’s film actually begins in a greyer era – the modern day – as an author (Tom Wilkinson) relays a story told to him by the enigmatic Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, a welcome addition to the Anderson stable). Jude Law, in the thankless role of the young author, meets Zero as they stand in the faded glory and cavernous vacant spaces of the titular hotel. From grey to drab, the film nests even further as Zero remembers the tale of his upbringing as a young lobby boy under the tutelage of chief concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in a career peak performance), a gentleman and stand-in for a long lost era. And thus, we are taken back to the 1930s, to the vibrant fictional country of Zubrowka, a land that looks suspiciously like pre-WWII Hungary.
Broken into five helpfully titled sections, The Grand Budapest Hotel whisks us through a plot that begins with the death of the wealthy Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in graceful aged makeup), the division of her estate, and, in the margins, the coming of some unnamed broader unrest. Zero the younger (newcomer Tony Revolori, doing his best to not be completely overwhelmed) becomes Gustave’s protege in the hotel trade; he also becomes something of an accomplice and confidant as the two go barrelling headlong into a confrontation with the evil son of the Madame, Dmitri (Adrien Brody, who really should play more villains) and his taciturn underling Jopling (Willem Dafoe, who can play a villain in his sleep) over the valuable painting, “Boy with Apple.” As always seems to be the case in these situations there are questions of foul play in the rich lady’s death, there is a will and maybe a second will, a delightfully well-detailed prison break and more bodies that keep turning up along the way. Atypical of Anderson, there is a macabre presence throughout the film, a certain barbarianism at the gates that erupts whenever characters such as the proto-Nazi Jopling or the shirtless, tattooed prisoner Ludwig (Harvey Keitel, twitching muscles and all) appear on screen. Some of the violent aftermath is surprisingly graphic. Even the genteel language of our heroes falls to the wayside under such duress.
There is sweetness too, of course; as you would expect from a film set in a hotel that looks like a giant layered wedding cake. Zero meets and falls in love with Agatha, the pastry chef’s assistant (Saoirse Ronan, finally allowed to be Irish). Their protracted love story offers the film a touch of innocence along the quickly darkening borders of the film. There is additional pleasure to be found in the rest of the cast with long time standbys Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (to say nothing, of course, of Wallace Wolodarsky and Waris Ahluwalia) popping up as a network of concierges ready to lend a hand, and neat little parts given to Jeff Goldblum (born to be in Anderson’s films, really) and Edward Norton (relishing his chance to play guileless again). The latter two actors work to enforce the overarching theme of the film; their lawyer and policeman, respectively, attempt to uphold the laws, rules, and above all, civility of their society. Yet, there is obvious war coming. The savagery of poor manners is no match for the appearance of tanks and jackboots. Even in a fictitious country like Zubrowka, we know how that particular story ends.
While the characters may find themselves flying through the madcap plot, Anderson never loses control of his material, fleshing out his aesthetic to some of its most extreme ends. Naturally, this means there is a large gun fight in the end, as messy and cacophonous as Anderson could possibly allow. This kind of thing has no place for Gustave though; he would have desired a sword fight instead, or perhaps a strongly worded letter. Fiennes brings a fantastic air of clipped politeness to this central performance. Gustave appears soft spoken and mild mannered, he recites poetry and enjoys fine dining, but there is an impatience there, as if he too is fighting against his own more basic instincts. Conversely, Abraham, as the aged Zero Moustafa, is a figure of melancholy and loneliness, standing by as figures like Gustave gradually find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Hearkening back to Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, voice over narration is used heavily and with great effect in Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a film very much concerned with the stories we repeat to ourselves, the tales we tell others, and the history we wish to restore and cherish. As with most of Anderson’s films, Grand Budapest Hotel worries about loss – of innocence, of family, of love – but here it is even more thoroughly underlined. The film seems more perturbed by the loss of an entire world, or way of life, a time, perhaps, that would allow for films of Anderson’s style, filled with wit and whimsy, energy and absurdity, to feel less like oddly designed outliers. For all the cynicism we can usually bear against Anderson and his creations, Grand Budapest Hotel sadly notes that this is something of a shame. The old world wasn’t perfect, but once it was destroyed, there was no way to go back.