Film Review: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson)

Post image for Film Review: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson)

by Kevin Bowen on March 7, 2014

in Film

GRAND

Enough with the Wes Anderson-bashing. It’s as if, in having an imagination, Anderson has committed a crime. Can we just sweep words like “quirky” and “whimsy” under the bed? I’m thinking “dollhouse” could also burn to the ground or get tossed out the window like Jeff Goldblum’s unlucky cat in Anderson’s latest film. Are these words descriptive or backhanded punishments that reduce a great director to a cinematic sideshow?

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 12

The pleasant acceptance of The Grand Budapest Hotel marks the end of the annoying-but-predictable revelation-backlash-“return-to form”-celebration cycle that serves as drama for film critics. Budapest reveals Anderson to be what he always has been: one of American cinema’s best comedy writers, a select group which includes Sturges, Wilder, Allen, and one or two others, but Anderson is the best filmmaker among them.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 15

Anderson described the childhood love story of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom as “a memory of a fantasy.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is the opposite, a fantasy born out of memory. It moves backwards in time (1985, 1968, 1932) as it widens and thins in aspect ratio (1.85, 2.35, the boxy 1.37). Over a long, brilliant dinner in 1968, a young author (Jude Law) listens to Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) tell the story of how he came to own the fading gem of a hotel, starting from his time as a penniless bellboy known as Zero.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 13

It was in 1932 that he first came to the plump pink palace, built into a hillside in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Once a postcard of pretty snow and skyscraping pastries, Zubrowka stands on the edge of fascism and war. Upholding the values of a gentler time is the hotel’s four-star concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Immersed in a purple waistcoat, with lungs that pump romantic poetry, Gustave believes in discreet customer service (sometimes of the naked variety) as a sacred virtue and – in the face of looming barbarity – a code for living. Gustave is what many Anderson heroes are – a well-dressed man (or fox) at war with his times.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 11

The death of an octogenarian conquest (Tilda Swinton, making the most of a few moments) leads to a battle over her will and a priceless Flemish painting, Boy with Apple. Framed for murder by relatives, Gustave and Zero (the young version played by Tony Revolori) give the ol’ 23 skidoo to the authorities, leaving a trail of perfume and civility along their travels. The film springs forward with madcap doings for Gustave and Zero, with a secret monastery, a bobsled chase, a prison moat of crocodiles, and a birthmark the shape of Mexico.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 10

For the traditionally solemn Fiennes, Gustave H is the sort of bright comedic role that points an actor in new, unrealized directions. Anderson regular Willem Dafoe nearly steals the show as a leather-clad henchman with no regard for the sanctity of human life or human fingers. The film’s real star is the hotel itself – the lavish crimson carpets, symmetrical dining tables, towering murals – a spacious resurrection of European bourgeois luxury (imagined and realized in an abandoned German department store). Anderson’s art direction and set design (brought to life by production designer Adam Stockausen and cinematographer Robert Yeoman) have become such a critical battlefield that sometimes we forget to marvel at them.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 9

As inspiration Anderson has been referencing Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of the thirties whose writings suggested the decline of Western civility during the rise of fascism. While I take his word, such a source clearly complements themes from 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by the British film-making partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, together often known as The Archers, the name of their production company. As proposed inspirations go, Blimp has the not-entirely-inconsequential benefit of having been named by Anderson as one of his favorite films. He goes so far as to import its most famous line, “The war starts at midnight!”

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 7

The Archers’ aging British colonel starts his film as an outdated fool, but a review of his past reveals a man motivated by the humane, chivalrous values of another age. When Blimp slowly returns to the war years, the satire becomes a lament for lost civility. Like Anderson, the Archers invented their worlds with a handmade quality: emotionally expressive color schemes, hand-drawn mountains and valleys, English sets, and models that could become Germany, France, or a mountainside palace in India.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 4

For Anderson, Gustave and his era are outlets for his romantic idealism, even while the character’s plight suggests darker layers to the past. Scrambling to put the world back together again is both an angelic longing and a tragic waste. Ultimately our encounters with the past are only the way to define the present. If Anderson is fascinated by disappearing grandeur, it’s because he senses its lack today.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 3

I wouldn’t say The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches the first rank of Anderson’s films (in which I would list Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Moonrise Kingdom). But it isn’t far off, either. While Anderson’s dialogue could sharpen its step, it makes up by being tons of fun. Most of all, it’s an indication of the middle-age mastery of his notable style – an artist of originality and vision at his point of greatest command.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 1

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Scott Rudin Productions, Indian Paintbrush,
Studio Babelsberg, Fox Searchlight Pictures
Germany, United Kingdom / rated PG-13
running time 99 minutes
in wide release March 7, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Still 5

Comments on this entry are closed.