Adrien Brody, adventure, Alexandre Desplat, all-star cast, auteur theory, best films of 2014, coming of age, concierge, contested will, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Film auteurs, friendship, Grand Budapest Hotel, Jeff Goldblum, lobby boy, M. Gustave, magical-realism, male friendships, Mathieu Amalric, Ralph Fiennes, Robert D. Yeoman, romance, Rushmore, Saoirse Ronan, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Royal Tennenbaums, the Society of the Crossed Keys, Tilda Swinton, Tony Revolori, Wes Anderson, Willem Dafoe, writer-director, Zero Moustafa
Even though the concept may no longer be in fashion, there really is no better word to describe writer-director Wes Anderson than “auteur”: it’s quite impossible to mistake any of his movies for the work of any other filmmaker and, as a whole, his back catalog is just as indispensable as those of Martin Scorcese, John Ford or Francis Ford Coppola. With a fussy, vibrant and immaculately composed style that recalls such filmmaking peers as Peter Greenaway and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Anderson has been making wonderfully quirky odes to the importance of family (both biological and “acquired”) for nearly 20 years now. While Anderson’s canon is one of the most high-quality bodies of work in modern cinema, his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), might just be the most inherently “Andersonian” film he’s yet crafted, a gorgeous, baroque and almost impossibly dense marvel that spans some 80 years of European history and introduces the world to one of his all-time best characters: the amazingly vibrant M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), ever-faithful head concierge at the titular establishment.
Opening with a flashback structure that most resembles a set of those Russian nesting dolls, we begin in the present, where a young girl is visiting the grave site of the author responsible for the book, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” before jumping back to 1985, where we actually meet the author (Tom Wilkinson) before jumping back, again, to 1968. At this point, we’re introduced to Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the fantastically wealthy owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel: he agrees to tell the author the story of how he came to own the hotel, which jumps us back one final time to 1932, where the meat of the tale occurs.
We now meet Moustafa when he’s but a lowly lobby boy (Tony Revolori), taken under the wing of the indomitable M. Gustave. Gustave is the whip-smart, rakish force-of-nature who is the living embodiment of everything the Grand Budapest stands for. He’s also quite the Don Juan, as it turns out, handily romancing the lonely, elderly ladies who constantly stream in and out of the hotel. “She was dynamite in the sack,” he fondly reminisces to Zero, only to be told, incredulously, that she was 84 years old. “I’ve had older,” he happily replies, “When you’re young, it’s all filet steak, but as the years go by, you have to move on to the cheap cuts. Which is fine with me, because I like those. More flavorful, or so they say.” One of these “cheap cuts,” as it were, is Madame D (Tilda Swinton), an exceptionally wealthy society matriarch and one of Gustave’s biggest “fans.” When Madame D dies after a passionate evening with Gustave, the concierge suddenly finds himself bequeathed a priceless painting, much to the massive consternation of Madame D’s patently awful son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody).
Convinced that Gustave killed his mother in order to gain access to her fortune, Dmitri is bound and determined to see Gustave in leg-irons. With the help of his sleazy right-hand man, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri frames Gustave and gets him thrown into prison. As anyone whose met him can attest, however, it’s patently impossible to keep the irrepressible Gustave penned up and he’s soon on the lam, thanks to an ingeniously messy prison break. With the help of the always-faithful Zero and his new lady-love, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave must work to clear his name and assume his rightful reward, even as Dmitri and Jopling cut a bloody swath through the countryside. With the dedicated Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton) on his trail, however, escape won’t be easy and Gustave, Zero and Agatha might just find themselves in the fight of their lives.
Above and beyond almost all of Anderson’s previous films, The Grand Budapest Hotel practically demands repeat viewings in order to parse through the dense, layered material. There’s an awful lot going on in the film: not only do we deal with all of Gustave’s madcap adventures but there’s also the implied background of the film, itself, to deal with. Set between World Wars I and II, in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka, The Grand Budapest Hotel deals (albeit in a slightly modified way) with the events that lead up to World War II, specifically the German aggression which would, in turn, lead to the National Socialist Party. Despite its loose, easy-going nature, the specter of the SS (here renamed the ZZ) and World War II hangs over The Grand Budapest Hotel like a pall, subtly informing everything from the background politics of the piece to interactions between the various characters. Despite its weighty subject-matter, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a remarkably light-weight film, certainly more easy-going and laid-back than one might expect for a film that discusses, in a roundabout way, the societal issues which led to the rise of the Nazis.
Two of the most “Andersonian” features of any of his films are the exceptional ensemble casts and meticulously detailed mise en scene and, in these regards, The Grand Budapest Hotel may just be the pick of the litter. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, so pretty and detailed as to almost seem like the life-sized embodiment of a miniature-adorned dollhouse. The Hotel, itself, is a masterpiece of baroque architecture, although the film is never short of astounding locations: Gustave’s prison, in particular, is a real marvel and reminded me of nothing so much as one of Jeunet’s eye-popping, studiously “unrealistically real” sets. And then, of course, there’s that cast…
It goes without saying that Fiennes is superb as Gustave: he’s one of cinema’s finest actors and he rips into the character of Gustave with real zeal, disappearing into the role so completely that it never seemed like acting. Watching Fiennes work is a real pleasure and he brings Gustave to glorious life with ease. The real surprise and shining star in the cast (which manages to include a veritable ocean of “blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em” cameos by acting heavyweights such as Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Jude Law), however, is Tony Revolori as the rock-solid lobby boy. Revolori, with only one full-length film under his belt prior to The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a complete revelation: watching his performance, I was struck with the notion that here, before our very eyes, is a star on the rise. Revolori is absolutely perfect in the film: whether courting Agatha, decking Dmitri or saving Gustave’s life (multiple times), Zero is a completely three-dimensional, warm character and Revolori is a thoroughly magnetic performer. There’s a realness to Zero’s relationships with both Gustave and Agatha that lends the film a truly bittersweet edge. For her part, Ronan is marvelous as Agatha: as far from a generic “manic pixie girl” as one can get, there’s an edge to her character that’s nicely balanced by a real sense of intelligence. She’s a more than suitable partner for Zero and holds her own quite nicely.
On the “bad guy” side, both Brody and Dafoe turn in fantastic, endlessly fun performances as Dmitri and Jopling, respectively, with Dafoe turning in one of the most effortlessly “cool” performances of a long and storied career. It’s quite obvious that both actors are having a blast with their characters: Anderson even allows Dafoe engage in a little bit o’ the old ultra-violence that his cinematic characters are normally known for when he slams a door on a character’s hand, cutting off several fingers in the process. Unlike some of Anderson’s previous films, there’s a real sense of danger and imminent violence to be found in The Grand Budapest Hotel and much of the credit for this must go to Dafoe, who still manages to seem like one of the most dangerous guys in the world, even as he pushes sixty.
As previously mentioned, all of these aspects add up to not only one of the finest films of 2014 but, arguably, one of the finest films of Anderson’s storied career. While I didn’t find the film to be as immediately gripping as either Rushmore (1998) or The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), that’s not really a fair “criticism,” either: Anderson’s second and third movies are absolutely perfect masterpieces of modern cinema and I doubt that anything will ever quite equal that pair. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a real marvel: endlessly fun, inventive and appropriately bittersweet, the film has an epic scope that’s belied by Anderson’s typically low-key goals. At its heart, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story about misfits trying to find their way in an increasingly cold-hearted world, about the importance of family and friends and about the joy…nay, the need, to remain true to yourself in a homogenous world. M. Gustave is a true individual, as is Zero Moustafa: united against the world, they’re capable of anything. Come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty damn good description for Anderson, too: a true individual whose capable of absolutely anything.