'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Gorgeously Conveys Our Need for Poise and Elegance

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustav in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) (IMDB)

The sense of artifice in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel helped him create an alluring reverie of both color and meaning.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson


28 April 2020


For an admittedly cantankerous and at times even adversarial Wes Anderson skeptic like myself, 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel represents probably the director's greatest effort yet in batching his signature style and thematic preoccupations in a shamelessly playful and at times gleefully nonsensical film. The secret is that, out of all of Anderson's much-beloved films, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to best layer real meaning behind the director's distinctive class of whimsy.

It's nostalgic because it finds a reason to be, cultured and prim because it's a key characteristic of how his characters interact with the wider world, and delicately manufactured because the film is about the act of storytelling itself. It's every bit as intimate a character piece as The Royal Tenenbaums, as personal as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as mischievous as Rushmore, and as ambitious as both Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. In short, it's Anderson's Sullivan's Travels—a manifesto of what it means to make the kind of films he does and indeed, what he hopes to bring into the world through them.

The intricacy of the craft behind every aspect of The Grand Budapest Hotel serves the driving themes of the movie in a powerful way, and it begins with the storytelling. The film is structured from four perspectives, each in its own time period. In 1985, an aged author (Tom Wilkinson in 1985, Jude Law in 1968) explains the inspiration for his masterwork, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A chance meeting in 1968 at the titular hotel, a once-famous and lavish mountain resort in the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka, with its mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham in 1968, Tony Revolori in 1932), recounts to the author his own adventures as the young bellboy at the Grand Budapest in 1932 under the tutelage of M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel's ostentatious concierge.

It's the relationship between the adolescent Zero and Gustave that becomes the film's primary narrative, as Gustave is framed for the murder of his elderly lover Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) by her son (Adrien Brody) and his bodyguard (Willem Dafoe) after inheriting Madame D.'s invaluable painting Boy with Apple. These overlapping stories are bookended by the briefest of the framing devices set in the present day, in which an unnamed young woman visits the snowy grave of the author to read his great novel and participate in the ceremonial act of hanging hotel keys on his monument. These timelines afford Anderson the chance to do two things: first, to explore the nature of storytelling and authorship as an experience shared between subject, author, and audience across generations and cultural borders, and second, to open a portal to a past where Anderson's imagination for ostentatious design and rigorous formality can flourish.

Tony Revolori as Zero (IMDB)

Anderson, like any director of his sensibilities with the opportunity to revisit an era rich with distinctive cinematic treasure, makes toys out of the form and style of the 1930s. In the elegantly embellished hotel, he and production designer Adam Stockhausen/set decorator Anna Pinnock (who together won an Academy Award for their efforts) adopt the exotic furnishings of von Sternberg and the droll and dignified manner of Lubitsch. Similarly, Anderson guides Fiennes and Revolori to play with the swashbuckling charisma of Errol Flynn. He and cinematographer Robert Yeoman even shoot his confectionary world in the period-appropriate Academy aspect ratio, a boxed-in 1.37:1, which allows him to frame his fantasies in ways never previously explored. (Fittingly, Anderson shoots the 1968 scenes in 2.39:1, while the '80s and present-day scenes are shot in the standard 1.85:1 format).

Indeed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is like a workshop for Anderson's ability to craft an aesthetics of nostalgia from an imagined time and place. Never before or since has that sense of artifice helped him create such an alluring reverie of both color and meaning, working so well in tandem with the film's themes of storytelling, aesthetic craftsmanship, and style. Rarely does a subject suit its author so well.

Of all of Anderson's films, The Grand Budapest Hotel must also be the most stylistically dynamic. In 1932, the bustling hotel is draped in charming pastels of pink and blue; in 1968, the hotel is run-down and forgotten, painted with harsh and dingy oranges and dressed with cooler, more modern furnishings. In scenes outside the hotel—especially action sequences, such as the daring prison escape and the ski chase down the mountains—Anderson explores other mediums, from matte paintings to miniatures and, of course, stop-motion animation.

In most of Anderson's movies, he makes tableaux out of his characters' spaces, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is alive with movement and dimension, and it certainly makes the film no less visually appealing or quintessentially Andersonian. The director's manicured style is at its most bold here, appropriately distinct and refined for a movie about a man's unusual taste for finery and the unfortunate scarcity of simple, exquisite pleasures in the world.

Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustav and Tony Revolori as Zero (IMDB)

That's what I find so different about this film: it both preaches about the need for poise and elegance in humanity, and it practices it, as well. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a unique character piece about Gustave, whose singular flair for decadence was inspired by Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig but which finds equal influence from the life and work of the director himself. All three are men of rare passion with unusual interests who, by some chance, found their own particular time and place to express their unique vision of the world. Their hope, perhaps, was to bring some special beauty into this dark and mystifying place.

In the fiction of the film, for instance, Gustave inspires Zero, who inspires the author to write his story as a novel, who in turn inspires countless readers to recognize and appreciate these small, idiosyncratic charms. This, too, seems to be Anderson's goal. For all the ambition, craft, and bombast behind this film, there's something undeniably powerful about the simplicity of the message that we can all find some grace in the act of loving something strange, personal, and pure. Beauty, it seems to say, is worth bonding over.

* * *

The Criterion Collection's long-awaited Blu-ray treatment of The Grand Budapest Hotel comes in a sleek slipcase adorned in new art by Emma Wesley (also included in the package on a double-sided poster), which sits perfectly alongside Eric Chase Anderson's similarly-styled covers for most of the label's Wes Anderson releases. Marquee special features include a brand new audio commentary featuring Anderson, co-writer Roman Coppola, actor Jeff Goldblum, and film critic Kent Jones, several storyboard animatics, and a new 20-minute documentary featuring behind-the-scenes production footage.

A ton of cast and crew interviews and other featurettes are also included, along with an illustrated booklet that includes a new essay by Richard Brody and "The Portier", an appendix to Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad, as well as a fold-out booklet covered in iconic background imagery from the film. Fans of Anderson will have plenty to explore, and admirers of Criterion's renowned approach to releasing the director's films with much fanfare will find the label hasn't lost their immaculate touch.





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