fbook icon 60Film Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Yes, I know the next Academy Awards are still almost a year away, but I’m making a prediction right now - that Wes Anderson’s film will win Best Picture.

In brief, it’s the story of a hotel concierge who is accused of murdering an elderly female guest, one of his many paramours. The setting is an alpine region* somewhere to the east of Germany, and most of the action takes place in 1932, although there are segments set in 1968 and 1985 featuring characters from the thirties and serving as 'bookends' to the story.

As a film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is full of contradictions. It's highly stylised and decorative, full of farcical elements, yet there are also serious political undercurrents. It makes gentle fun of cinematic storytelling traditions: the voiceover narration, the story within a story, the chase scene, the prison break, the buddy movie, but it also takes these to new levels. And although there are echoes of 1930s classics such as ‘Grand Hotel’** and even the romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch***, this film is far more than an homage.

The cast is superb. There are some brief but memorable cameos from Tilda Swinton as Madame D; Adrian Brody as the rapacious son, Dmitri; Willem Dafoe as a suitably creepy villain; Owen Wilson as the delightfully named Monsieur Chuck. But the standout performances come from the two leads: newcomer Tony Revolori as the wide-eyed lobby boy, Zero Mustafa, and Ralph Fiennes as the vain and supremely confident concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. Just when we’ve decided he’s a rather obnoxious character preying on ‘women of a certain age’, we catch a glimpse of him eating dinner alone in his spartan room, clad only in his underwear. Is he equally as vulnerable as the women he sleeps with? As the story progresses, we begin to see other aspects of Gustave H which make us question our early assumptions about him. 

The film is a visual feast. As a Libran, I just can’t resist the symmetry of the set-ups. As an artist, I’m drawn to the sumptuous Art Nouveau/Art Dec interiors. Like Luchino Visconti in ‘The Damned’, Wes Anderson has an impeccable eye for detail. Every set is perfectly decorated, from the painted wall panels to the bric-à-brac. One scene in particular stands out for me – the reading of the will. The ghoulish family has assembled in front of the dour Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), executor of the estate. He stands behind a desk trimmed with antler-horn legs. Beside him is a rampant stuffed bear and in the background there’s a folk-art style painting of a pig. Everything mirrors the greed of the family.

The voiceover narration is brimming with in-jokes, sub-text and double-entendres. Writers suffer from ‘scribe’s fever’; the annexation of Zubrowka is compared to an epidemic of ‘Prussian grippe’. There is amusing signage everywhere. In fact, during the prison break sequences, the signs literally point the way to freedom. So much is going on visually and verbally that you’d have to see the film many times to take it all in.

But this isn’t just a clever and entertaining confection; it’s also a sad political allegory about the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe.

If you loved Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’, I feel confident that you’ll enjoy this. Wes Anderson is an American with a European sensibility and a deep appreciation of the traditions of 1930s cinema.

In a nutshell, this a a delightful, quirky and poignant film. I rarely use the term ‘masterpiece’ but I suspect that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ will go down in cinematic history as one of the greats.

* Writer/director Anderson is playfully vague about the location – at times the film seems to be set in Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia which was annexed and occupied by the Nazis in 1938). But ‘Budapest’ would of course place it in Hungary!

** Filmed in 1932, (the year in which Wesley Anderson sets his film) ‘Grand Hotel’ was based on the 1929 German novel by Vicky Baum, ‘Menschen im Hotel’ (People in the Hotel).

*** Often set in a mythical olde-worlde Vienna.

Deborah O’Brien

May 20, 2014