The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Dir: Wes Anderson
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture. Best Director. Original Screenplay. Original Score. Cinematography. Editing. Production Design. Costume Design. Makeup and Hair.
Only Wes Anderson could dare to direct a confectionery-coloured caper that evokes WWII and Nazi occupation, and make it work like this!
Recounting a meeting with a hotelier (F. Murray Abraham), an author (Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law) recounts the tale of legendary concierge Gustave H (Ralph Feinnes) in the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictional eastern European country of Zubrowka as the threat of war looms over the alpine state. Bequeathed a priceless painting by a very grateful wealthy guest (Tilda Swinton), Monsieur Gustave has to contend with her son (Adrien Brody), going on the run from the sinister Jopling (Willem Dafoe), with his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) in tow and enlisting the help of confectioner Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), some prisoners (led by Harvey Keitel), and a fraternity of concierges (including Bill Murray and Bob Balaban).
Firstly, I must say I’ve watched this twice now, and on the second viewing realised how very much there is of interest to talk about. I cannot possibly cover it all in this review, you’d likely be bored by the end and my mug of coffee would be stone cold, plus I should leave you to enjoy it fully for yourself, as it’s definitely worth a watch. Many people don’t ‘get’ Anderson’s films, and some dismiss them as having no real substance, but on the strength of this I would be willing to counteract that view, there’s a lot more depth than you might expect.
The opening sets it up as an act of storytelling, it’s even split into chapters, and told by a writer as a nod to being inspired by Jewish Austrian author Stefan Zweig who left his homeland when the Nazis rose to power. In some ways though it holds more to the idea of oral storytelling rather than a written work, especially in the way that it’s narrated by a younger version of the writer as played by Jude Law, with certain moments suddenly arising as distractions, briefly pulling focus away from the story like lapses in concentration that might happen when telling someone a story.
I think the story itself is really great, it would work perfectly well as a murder mystery drama, but when realised as it is in Wes Anderson’s style with the humour and oddity it’s even more interesting, and clearly sets itself apart from any other murder mystery film. Fittingly one of the Academy Awards it is up for is best original screenplay, and while it treads story elements that are much used, murder, prison escape, war, it does so in this inimitable style that makes it completely original, throwing twists and turns in regularly. Some elements are incredibly complex, for example the escape from prison taking the strangest route imaginable, or the concierges helping them hide with a long series of phone calls that allows for small appearances from so many Anderson collaborators but also leads the audience on a merry chase full of funny moments.
Wes Anderson has such a strong style, this is distinctly his work but it has quite a different feel from others such as ‘Moonrise Kingdom‘. It’s frenetic in terms of pace and the complex narrative, though that may sound like standard Anderson fare I think this may be him working on another level, really at his best. While a lot seems madcap, it’s amazingly controlled to precision, choreographed like a wonderful ballet. Everyone and everything is precisely positioned on the screen and in the locations, making the activity and dialogue hit every beat exactly when needed.
While it may be a lot of fun, the film also has a really serious backbone to it, with the presence of war and its effects becoming more prominent throughout. Zero is a refugee, war caused him to flee when his family were slaughtered. There are regular references more specifically to evoke the second world war, for example there are prison outfits that resemble concentration camp uniforms as well as other Holocaust references, while the ‘Crossed Keys’ society can be likened to the undergound railroad. Willem Dafoe’s character is a bit like an SS guard searching for Gustave, on his desk is the name ‘Zig Zag division’ with a logo that is so clearly a reference to the SS emblem. The art elements can be seen as a reference to the Nazi practices of taking art, and ‘High command’ even take over the Grand Budapest Hotel for their own purposes as these things are said to be viewed by them as ‘common property’. The whole period is referred to as an occupation in which Zubrowska (which is the name of a Polish vodka) ‘ceased to exist’ and there’s even mention of ‘death squads’.
Though it’s not a heavy examination of the horrors of the war it does show how lives and freedoms were affected. The closest comparison I can think of that I’ve seen might be ‘La Vita Est Bella’, that managed to deal with concentration camps while deliberately providing a distraction from the horrors that were occurring around. This does something similar, we get caught up in the story, but there’s the ever-present war and occupation that we’re being constantly distracted from as the characters seem too busy or reluctant to acknowledge the larger issues at hand. When they do it’s not done flippantly, the strongest terms and most heartfelt emotions are used in reference to the ‘fascist’ soldiers and mentions of slaughter. Monsieur Gustave is clearly affected by this, more than anything else in the entire film, losing his composure with soldiers and launching into an altercation with them more than once. There are frequent suggestions that his circumstances may explain why the occupation prompts such a reaction, maybe linked to his untold past or hints to his sexuality.
Besides the narrative, the film has a strong and truly beautiful visual style. One of the most distinctive features of the film is the way the aspect ratio changes for each different time period. Maybe it’s a good technique to employ in the quest for Academy Awards, as ‘The Artist’ won years ago after being in 4:3, and ‘Ida’ is nominated twice this year (a real achievement for a foreign language film) in 4:3 also. There was a letter sent to projectionists to help them in correctly setting up the film for this, and the DVD also makes sure that you set your display appropriately to show the film as intended. I was slightly worried that the ratio changes would diminish the cinematic effect of the film, or worse end up distancing the viewer by breaking the connection with the narrative when it changes. Thankfully it didn’t for me, I was consistently immersed in the whole film, and the changes merely caused me to momentarily think to myself that I was watching a very impressively constructed film.
There’s lots of vibrant colour, especially with the hotel itself, which distinctly stands in opposition to the drab and dark soldier’s uniforms and ZZ outfits. Some of the external scenes feature beautifully artistic models, with the hotel, the funicular railway and a cable car being done in this way that’s exquisite and charming. The film provides lots to look at with an immaculate attention to detail. Every single shot is perfectly framed and detailed, and I love the way that many things are even labelled or signposted, it both acts as a lovely form of exposition while also adding to the quirky style.
Frequent Anderson collaborators populate much of the cast, but it’s nice to see the leads being new to his circle of actors. Ralph Feinnes gives a superb performance, showing his comedic abilities in a way that he rarely does. The stand out thread through the whole film though is Zero, played very gently in his older years by F. Murray Abraham, and more energetically when younger by Tony Revolori. He’s a great character whose name at first also acts as a description, but really there’s a backstory and depth to him that adds up to a whole lot more.
The score is provided by Alexandre Desplat, who faces competition at the Oscars in the ‘Best Original Score’ category from film composing legend Hans Zimmer, and himself! That’s right, Alexandre Desplat is nominated twice as he’s also in the running with his work on ‘The Imitation Game’. It’s a funny and interesting occurrence, and statistically it would suggest he’s in with a very good chance of going home with a little golden man after being nominated six times in the past eight years.
I feel like I may have only scratched the surface of the many interesting things about this film, but that means that I can leave you to see it for yourself and find out what more it holds. For me, I found it wonderfully captivating, definitely my favourite Wes Anderson film to date, the way that the story is formed and the immense visual flair all appeals to me greatly. I hope Wes Anderson continues to work like this in the future, with a certain air of panache. Though his style may not be to all tastes, I think the film sums him up beautifully when it’s said of Monsieur Gustave that, “His world had vanished long before he even entered it but I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”