By Simon Miraudo
April 7, 2014
What a rare pleasure it is to watch a movie and slowly realise it will soon become one of your favourites. Wes Anderson joints always threaten to wedge their way into your heart for all time, and his latest, cuckoo caper comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, wedges with gusto. I’ve lived with Rushmore for fifteen years, and Moonrise Kingdom for only two, yet both are remembered by me (and many) with an increasingly warm hue. The same fate will likely befall The Grand Budapest Hotel, actually all about memories so potent and experiences so vivid the decades that follow just can’t compare. As with all things nostalgic, when Anderson bows out of filmmaking, I’ll probably wonder forlornly why things weren’t ever quite as good again.
Our tale begins when the mysterious Zero (F. Murray Abraham) – seemingly the lone, lingering resident in the decrepit remains of the once grandiose title hotel – reveals to a holidaying writer (Jude Law, seen as Tom Wilkinson in his later years) the circumstances of his loyal patronage to this crumbling icon, reflecting on his youth as a lobby boy (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) working under the tutelage of legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Back in the early 1930s, the wealthy, elderly, largely-female clientele were drawn to the Grand Budapest – anachronistically located in the fictional, eastern European Republic of Zubrowka – specifically to be serviced by the refined, profane Gustave. And yes, ‘serviced’ is the key term here.
When one of Gustave’s ancient playthings (Tilda Swinton) winds up murdered, with a will recently reshaped to bequeath him a priceless heirloom, her family make it their mission to put the amorous concierge behind bars. In prison, Gustave relies on Zero and baker’s apprentice Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) to help bust him out, clear his name, and claim his treasure. Unfortunately, there is no brief plot synopsis that could give fair mention to the dense cast of characters surrounding them, comprised of Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, as well as (too briefly) Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Léa Seydoux.
Framed as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story (each earning its own aspect ratio), The Grand Budapest Hotel is as manicured and intricately designed as any of Anderson’s features. It’s also the grandest in scope, with the most outrageous locations, the closest thing he’s ever made to action set pieces, and one towering lead performance from M. Fiennes, whose Gustave is maybe the most memorable in Wes’ canon; a complex, comic creature whose con-man charm masks genuine concern for those in his life (including Zero, Agatha, and all those lovely old ladies he prides himself on satisfying). The Grand Budapest Hotel is similarly, wonderfully contradictory; easily the director’s coarsest, most violent effort to date, with some honest-to-goodness gruesome deaths that are cutesy and cartoonish and chilling in their own Etsy-esque manner. Is it wrong to be so tickled by them?
The credits claim the script is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, although the screenplay is assigned to Anderson and Hugo Guinness, so to them goes the majority of praise. They’re responsible for this magnificent monologue of Gustave’s, explaining to his young colleague the origin of his new shiner from prison: “What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living s*** out of a snivelling little runt called Pinky Bandinski. You should take a long look at his ugly mug this morning. He’s actually become a dear friend.” Odd, funny lines are one thing. Intricate narrative craftsmanship is another. Most impressive about their screenplay, however, is the way in which it twists history into something that feels both foreign and familiar. As the 1932 storyline comes to a close, the fictional Zubrowka is invaded entirely by a Nazi-like army (calling for immediate comparisons with Ernst Lubitsch‘s To Be or Not To Be, Powell and Pressburger‘s A Matter of Life and Death, and Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator; esteemed company it certainly earns). The mismatching of dates, locations, and names of nations furthers the point that this wonderful time – the best in Zero’s life, preceding true tragedy – is slowly escaping his grasp, and only by recounting it aloud can he hold onto it, even in this slightly forgotten, perhaps half-invented form. There’s tragedy to be found beneath the surface, should you want to dig deep enough.
It’s a visual delight, surely no surprise to anyone who’s seen one of Anderson’s projects before, thanks to the well-schooled, track-happy cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The highly-specific blocking of the actors and the way the camera follows them as if they were moving across a doll-house is especially effective in this instance, representing the Grand Budapest as a fantasy, illusion, and maybe-memory wrapped into one. (Don’t think that turns his cast into props: Fiennes in particular leaps off the screen.) It’s an aural delight too, and not just because the resonant Abraham is our primary narrator. Alexandre Desplat’s hypnotic, metronomic, surprisingly witty score easily ranks among his best; an imposing, amusing, melancholy companion to the film it supports. The Gregorian rendition of the main theme that briefly appears in a monastery earns a laugh on its lonesome.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is as inventive and immaculately orchestrated a cinematic universe as I’ve ever seen. Avatar ain’t got nothing on this. Speaking of, patrons reportedly suffered depression after leaving sessions of James Cameron‘s space epic, knowing they can’t actually live in Pandora. I feel the same after Anderson’s pictures. You can never go home again, but you can always watch his idiosyncratic treats any time you please, and know that even though the years pass and change everything around us, nothing could diminish or damage his pristine, snow-globe ensconced worlds. Photos fade. Dreams dissipate like fog. Recollections grow unreliable. The only major change I’ve found in Wes Anderson’s movies? They mostly just keep getting better.
The Grand Budapest Hotel arrives in Australian cinemas April 10, 2014.