It is hard not to assume that this neatly wrapped confection of a film is an adaptation of an early nineteenth century novel, in fact most of Wes Anderson’s own inspires a similar feeling. This colourful and elegant screwball-comedy would seem to be from another time, but perfectly fitting into contemporary cinema. The Grand Budapest Hotel stars a rich colour palette, the most beautiful winter landscapes, and alongside and rivalling this, if possible, are a brilliant list of actors, all probably giving their peak performances, as does the brilliant genius of the director. At once on seeing the bold Archer typeface on screen, urging the audience to set their monitors to 16 x 9, and finally at the revelation of the painting-like Grand Budapest itself, I knew that I was in for a most delightful story and incredible visuals. Anderson goes all out on this one, bringing to his hungry audience a treat, just as Herr Mendl’s finest; bold, refined, comical and above all, giving us another reason to deem his work a genre in itself.
There are few directors at work today whose films cannot be reviewed without frequently lauding their personal creative effort, and Wes Anderson is at the top of such a pile. Indeed, any frame from his impressive portfolio gains instant recognition, if not for anything else, for the bold and pastel-like embellishment of colours. He is one director who keeps upping the ante and improving upon his last, having also never made a bad movie to date. This is quite impressive, even Fincher had Alien 3. I was of the opinion that he couldn’t do better than Moonrise Kingdom, and yet here he is now with another masterpiece for the eyes and the ears in Grand Budapest. In his latest, Anderson creates the imaginary country of Zubrowka, a world that boasts of landscapes which remind of Monet and sounds that echo the romantic era. It is no wonder that I was more than excited to slip into this dreamland for the fifth time, for this end-of-the-year review. In many ways, the film is quite like the magnetic concierge of the titular hotel, M. Gustave, a refined soul of rich expression and poetry, and now that I think about it, not unlike the genius himself, constantly pumping out films that are pregnant with the romanticism of a more magical time.
It must be gathered at this point that I have only praise for this film, and deservedly so, as any of you will agree on seeing this marvellous piece. I have always believed that if ever a trend came about for books to be adapted from film, as opposed to today; then the first movies to be given this treatment should be Anderson’s. Grand Budapest is the answer to every doubt you might have about my bold statement, starting off with the author, a charming nod to how the film plays out in the style of a book. It takes an incredibly meticulous director to strictly adapt a book, translating all the pages onto screen, but it takes nothing short of creative genius to fashion film constructed with screenplay that reads like a book, where no such original exists. Weaving together different settings: of the pristine mountains, the grand Hotel and the ratty prison, not one shot looks careless, rather they are meticulously crafted, with grinding attention to minute detail, all of which pays off in the end, in bounds.
“It begins, as it must, with our mutual friend’s predecessor.”
A girl walks into the ‘Old Lutz Cemetery’ and ceremoniously places a keychain on the memorial of a celebrated author, who will serve as one of the narrators of this curious tale. She then proceeds to open a book titled ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ in meta-reference to the film itself. Diving into the book, the author starts narrating the tale of how he came by the Grand Budapest after its glory days were long gone, and met its proprietor Mr. Moustafa. The author is seen sitting at his desk, and as he turns to the audience, a spotlight shines upon his face. This perfectly captures the conscious theatricality the film employs, and is immediately offset by the serious narration being cut short by his kid pelting him with toy bullets. As he carries on, quite not unfazed, the boy comes back to apologize and is met with a matter-of-fact ‘’salright’. The atmosphere for the remnant of the movie is set by the quick prologue. The first shots we see, and indeed every shot, of the Hotel has the allure of a painting, mostly in a cascade of pink. The Hotel itself is described as a ‘picturesque, elaborate and once widely-celebrated establishment’. I do not think I could use more apt words for the cinematic style use of Anderson. Indeed, most of the adjectives I can think up to describe it will be synonyms of the same. It is here the young author notices Mr. Moustafa, and is intrigued by the curious information that the concierge tells him. He chances on meeting the same Moustafa in the bath later on, and as all good tales go, is invited to dinner and a telling of how he, Zero Moustafa came to own the Grand Budapest Hotel. And so, “It begins, as it must, with our mutual friend’s predecessor.”
Zero came to the Grand Budapest as a lobby boy, and was immediately met with the queer and polished Monsieur Gustave H, the then concierge, who decides to take him under his training. Although seemingly abrupt and mean, Gustave’s dedication to the Hotel is brought to light by his delight at Zero’s use of the title ‘institution’ to define it. Finely played by an excellent Ralph Fiennes, Gustave is described by Zero as the man behind the success of the Hotel, as most of the old patrons of the establishment came there seeking his service and hospitality. This hospitality is then revealed to be focused toward a particular class of people – rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, and needy. The film has a way of inserting off-key asides and quirky two-liners right in the middle of serious melodious narration, making for quick, prosaic comedy. Keeping with this, the author immediately raises his query as to ‘why blonde?’ to which he received a ‘because they always were’. It is interesting; I noted here, that although the images show us a series of women, never in his specifications comes up the feminine term. (Yes, that which I just used is the narrative style of the film, I simply couldn’t resist) Gustave, through his mannerisms and taste, does hint at a differential sexuality, which is also hilariously alluded to by his conversation with the prison inmate only known as ‘Pinky’: when called a ‘pretty straight fellow’, he responds with a deferential ‘I’ve never been accused of that before.’ Not important to the movie, but it’s the tiny details that induce delight.
Anyway, I sidetrack too often, the plot is set in motion when one of Gustave’s most distinguished and closest patrons, Madame D passes away which immediately demands Gustave to travel to her home, taking along with him Zero. What follows is a most twisting line of plot, filled with soldiers of war, a most evil progeny of Madame, a strange yet priceless painting ‘Boy with Apple’ and a flowering romance with the confectionary-worker Agatha, all of which can be found in but two places: the most exciting books and of course, Anderson’s mind. Jeff Goldblum plays an amazing Deputy Kovacs, who reads out Madame’s will to reveal, much to Dmitri’s despair, that her rare possession of ‘Boy with Apple’ has been willed to Gustave. He is framed for the murder of Madame (which he didn’t), and the subsequent theft of ‘Boy with Apple’ (which he did), following which they flee from the police. There is also the key role of Madame’s butler, with the constantly astonished and bewildered face, who is the key witness to both crimes, and in the light of the situation has himself taken off. Gustave is taken into custody, leading to a sub-plot involving gaining the trust of the inmates and planning an elaborate escape by digging a tunnel. Very much parodying the renowned Shawshank Redemption, a fable-like light is shed, with tiny digging tools being delivered to them through Mendl’s confectionary packages which Zero religiously delivers. Gustave’s mind lights on this idea while noticing one of Mendl’s own, and an applause is heard, building again on the theatricality. A surprising treat is found in the character of the strategist inmate Ludwig brought to life by Harvey Keitel, who occupied very similar shoes in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Seen here bald, more expressive and with a body tattooed all over with scribbles like that of a child. (We’ll talk more of that in a bit.)
There is a pretty valid reason that many of the visuals of the story are unnatural and unusual (special reference to the sliced fingers of the will-executer), that being that the images are only conjured up by the reader, possibly the girl sitting in the cemetery, in her imaginative head as she intently escapes into the leaves of the book. Indeed, on close notice, it can be seen that most of the movements and expressions exerted by the characters are quite springy and cartoonish, which is exactly how the child’s mind pictures scenes from any given book. A notable example takes place on the train when Gustave, Zero and the constable exchange expectant and urgent glances as the latter tries to ‘take out’ the lobby-boy. Further impressed through the scenes involving the cat’s murder by Serge X, a William Dafoe more menacing than his Green Goblin; and the coat chit Kovacs receives which simply reads ‘One cat (deceased)’. Something I didn’t quite notice on my first watching, this perspective of the whimsical nature of the story and its characters makes this Anderson’s best yet.
There is again an untiring repetition of Anderson’s style in zooming into objects, letters and pamphlets to involve more drama in the stillness of images. We see a great deal of this here, especially in the sequence involving the Society of the Crossed Keys, which also happens to squeeze in quite a many cameos, the most delightful yet inevitable one being Bill Murray, a constant in Anderson’s world. It would seem that Wes has with cursive letters and perfume what Tarantino has with lady’s feet; as here too, just as the Voltaire #6 from The Darjeeling Limited, is ever-elemental the L’air de Panache which, as Zero puts it, Gustave liberally applies. Again, we are taken in by the romanticism of man and possession, as with boy scouts and their gear, little girls and books, here with a man and his perfume. (The previously mentioned question of sexuality is heightened here) Gustave seems more angered at the absence of this Panache than of disguises and transport on his daring escape.
The relation between Zero and Agatha is, for curious reasons, not the highlight of the show, and this query is echoed by the author to the older Mr. Moustafa. The audience is bound to attribute his affliction with the Hotel to his close relationship with Gustave H, whom he adores, and yet is left baffled that it is for his love, Agatha. This is also seen throughout the film, from when he lingers over the image of Agatha despite his refusal to talk about her, to the Mendl’s sweets brought before the author not of the perfect make as they are pictured in Zero’s narration. The romance has always been in the undercurrent, one of my favourite scenes in the whole movie being that of Zero sneaking around on rooftops, set against the stark blue night-sky. Once again, this movie is worth watching for the visuals alone, the whole affair coming off as one of Mendl’s confectionary treats. While Zero shares a connection with Agatha only he can know, the dynamic duo he forms with Gustave is one of the most endearing and thrilling to watch, with Zero seemingly an observer swept away with the gusto and pace of Gustave’s enthusiastic spirit, which we realize at the end, is equal to that of his patrons – rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, and above all, needy and lost in a world that he wishes were around him.
One of the very few movies I just cannot find a single flaw with, The Grand Budapest Hotel is worthy of every praise and every adjective it gets. Anderson’s latest masterpiece is impossible to leave you bored or let you turn eyes away for even a fraction, and is arguably the peak of his career – until now, as I’m sure he will soon surprise us again. With top-class acting from some of the best actors (a perk that Anderson seems to get time and time again), this creative giant revels in its world-creation and characters, both of which are befitting of Gustave’s epitaph: one whose world died long before he was born. I can possibly use every adjective synonymous with delightful, exquisite and masterful, and I still could not completely describe the experience. Indeed the trouble I find at the moment is to limit my words and more difficult, to pick a select few images from its beautiful cinematography. Whimsical in the use of slapstick and firm motion for the purpose of comedy, it hits all the right notes. It amazes me every time that the screenplay is not adapted from a romantic-era novel, and if this is not enough to win it all the awards, I don’t know what is.