Wes Anderson has always been one of cinema's most enchanting illusionists even if, on occasion, his carefully and even obsessively created artistic illusions have ultimately stifled his success as a filmmaker.
Of course, I use the word "stifled" cautiously because, quite honestly, the very things that can make Anderson a maddening filmmaker are also those things that help to make him one of this generation's most visionary and expressive auteurs. Even when I haven't particularly cared for an Anderson creation, I have nearly always admired and respected his work and integrity.
While many considered Anderson's last film Moonrise Kingdom to be on the maddening end of the Anderson scale, the simple truth is that it was and remains one of my favorites of Anderson's films because it felt to me like he was taking greater risks and creating characters of a richer humanity acting both humanely and inhumanely in his very illusory world.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a truly sublime moviegoing experience, possessing everything we've grown to love and hate about Anderson's meticulously manifested worlds while creating characters who live and breathe and dance and fuck and fight in this world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is very nearly a masterpiece, yet much like the world he's created it falls shy of perfection because perfection, in reality, is nothing but an illusion anyway.
Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer extraordinarily popular in the 1920's and 30's who escaped Austria in 1934 just after Hitler began rising to power and moved first to England then New York City and, finally, he and his wife located in the country of Brazil. A lifelong pacifist, Zweig's writings over his latter years became increasingly despondent as he watched intolerance and authoritarianism grow in the world. Finally, in 1942 Zweig and his wife committed suicide while holding hands side-by-side.
While such a description may make you hesitant to watch a film such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, you may rest assured that Anderson's film is only inspired by Zweig's writings yet it is very much an Anderson cinematic beast all its own. It is simultaneously joyous and melancholy, innocent yet despairing. The main character in the film is M. Gustave, played with absolute magnificence by Ralph Fiennes, an actor of Shakespearean experience who captures every minute nuance of Anderson along with the eloquence of every word and the importance of every single syllable. M. Gustave is the concierge extraordinaire of the grandest hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka in the year of 1932 when much of what occurs in the film takes place.
Actually, the film kicks off in typical Anderson fashion as we first spy a young woman in what is meant as modern day in the small town of Lutz as she approaches a town center where she pays a most appropriate tribute to the esteemed author of a book called "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Then, we flash back to 1985 where we see that author (played by Tom Wilkinson) preparing to give a radio show on how he came to write the book. Finally, we flash back even further as the now younger author (now played by Jude Law) taking up residence in what was by then a very run down hotel that has long ago left its best days behind. The hotel's mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (played as an adult by F. Murray Abraham), becomes enchanted by this writer's curiosity and agrees to share the story of how he came to own The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The story that unfolds is nearly as grand as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a story of another era that, as the prologue notes, may very well have been over even before M. Gustave was born. Gustave is not simply an exceptionally attentive concierge, but he is a man who is committed in the most intimate of ways to the wealthy, elderly ladies who frequent his hotel. Among these ladies, none manage to captivate him like the 84-year-old known solely as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a wealthy woman whose fate sets in motion everything else that follows in the film.
While M. Gustave is the most important person at The Grand Budapest Hotel, a young boy named Zero Moustafa, played with perfect boyish enthusiasm by newcomer Tony Revolori, has been provisionally hired to be the new lobby boy and finds himself quickly taken under the wing of Gustave.
To give you any additional details would be shameful. Truthfully, I shouldn't have given you as much as I did because the true joy of The Grand Budapest Hotel is becoming immersed in the experience of watching it all unfold. It is not rocket science to realize the cultural significance of having a story sit so precariously between two world wars and the seismic shift that occurred both before, during, and after them. Zero has been hired at The Grand Budapest Hotel at what seems to be the winding down of a more civilized era of humanity and manners and service while fascism and intolerance and greed are beginning to stake their claims on society. Within the free-flowing confines of Anderson's story, we watch all of this not so peacefully co-existing even as we watch characters struggling with themselves and who they choose to define themselves to be.
The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to show Anderson vacillating between a determined optimism and a resigned cynicism. It's as if he's grieving the loss of once was in art, in love, in history, and within ourselves. If you are familiar with classic cinema, you will unquestionably recognize familiar references from Lubitsch to Becker to even a glimpse of Hitchcock. The world that Anderson has created is just as precise as we've come to expect from Anderson, but it is far more expressive and deeply felt than we've ever seen Anderson even attempt.
The performances are, for the most part, just as glorious as Anderson's contributions to the film. As noted, Fiennes gives such a defining performance here that it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Newcomer Tony Revolori proves to be a perfect counterpart for Gustave with a performance that shifts from one of subservience to one of treasured equal. Many of the Anderson regulars are here including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and a host of others. While these types of brief appearances and cameos can be distracting, Anderson has for the most part used them wisely. For this critic, only Adrien Brody's appearance as a particularly greed-driven relative of Madame D. feels a bit off, a tad histrionic and lacking of the whimsy and poetry that is so prevalent in the other performances.
Saiorse Ronan is a treasure as Agatha, Zero's beloved and a princess on the outside whose skills at baking come in quite handy later in the film. Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, and Jude Law all excel while Tilda Swinton, who spent 5 hours in make-up to portray the 84-year-old Madame D., turns an easy caricature into a brief, yet memorable performance. Finally, Willem Dafoe may shine above the supporting players as a henchman whose appearance almost makes you wonder if you've stumbled onto an old 70's French action flick.
Alexandre Desplat's original score is exquisite in weaving together the film's playful and melancholy elements, while Adam Stockhausen's production design is both fantastic and intellectually satisfying. The film is already rather infamous for being shot utilizing three aspect ratios which, of course, makes it no small task to even screen. Yet, the choice to do so is inspired in the way that it so clearly supports the illusory aspects of the filmmaking and, as well, the tonal and visual shifts. While many moviegoers may not fully understand what's happening, there's little doubt that the choice will be fully experienced even if not expressed.
The Grand Budapest Hotel will, as do all Anderson films, have its naysayers. So be it. For those who appreciate his works and for those who've even come close to appreciating his work this may be the film that finally makes you understand and appreciate his artistic vision and his commitment to maintaining it rather than always going for simple marketability.
There is more. There is much more that could be said about The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it is a film best experienced with a heart and mind fully open.
During a time of year when we expect nothing but action flicks and lame comedies to come out of Hollywood, Wes Anderson and the folks at Fox Searchlight have surprised us all with a rather grand illusion - The Grand Budapest Hotel.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic