Throughout the frivolity that encapsulated the entire duration of The Grand Budapest Hotel a little smile (or maybe it was a mischievous grin) never left my face. I love new introductions to the worlds of Wes Anderson (responsible for The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) and being repeatedly surprised by his ability to find humour in the most sad and mundane events, his stunning shot compositions and his ability to attract such wonderful casts, all of whom seem to be having a great deal of fun. It is impossible not to admire the amount of work that has gone into the conception and execution of these ideas. Anderson is a true auteur, a man who seems to possess unlimited originality and imagination, and with a newfound sense of unbridled inspiration. He has faced his animated critics head on and refused to alter his widely considered worn out style, but has tightened his scripts, chiseled his style down to the strongest features and spruced them up.
Anderson has crafted a gem that is characteristically hilarious and playful, yet surprisingly bold in its construction (the film shifts between 1.33, 1.85 and 2.35:1 ratios), and tackles a horrific period of history with seriousness and respect. The Grand Budapest has some genuinely grisly bits, and an all-new darker edge, but offers plenty of charming, emotional developments. It is a venture into fun-house cinema you may cherish for a long time after.
This layered narrative comprises, on the simplest level, of a friendship between the legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes), and his loyal lobby boy and protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), and the wild adventure they share with many others. The story, set in the fictional republic of Zubrowka, a European alpine state, predominantly during the year 1932, revolves around the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the battle for the enormous family fortune of one of the mysterious hotel guests, whose sudden death is treated with suspicion. We also visit the hotel during the late 1960’s, where an unnamed author (Jude Law) meets an older Zero (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts the experiences we witness. The true character of the film is the hotel, a relic that has survived being surrounded by war and barbarity to continue thriving as a result of the passion of those operating within its walls.
This cast is one of the greatest Anderson has ever assembled (and that is really saying something), and for those regulars returning they are portraying characters completely unlike any others assigned to them. Willem Dafoe’s intimidating henchman Jopling, Jeff Goldblum's remarkably articulate attorney Vilmos Kovacs, Adrien Brody’s ungrateful son-and-heir Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis and an impeccably made-up Tilda Swinton as Madame D are just some examples. If you aren't aware of who else turns up, and how they are involved, I won’t spoil it here. But Fiennes, newcomer Revolori and Saoirse Ronan are the essence of this film. Fiennes is so good as the lanky, dapper, fiendishly charming and utterly ridiculous Gustav. His bursts of profanity (“those fuckers!”) are hilarious, his discipline always in the shadow of his irresponsibility. Zero, an immigrant with dubious identity papers, finds himself a willing cohort. Revolori does a terrific job matching Fiennes energy.
Another of the heroes of this film is the music. Alexandre Desplat, who also worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom has composed a wonderful score, performed by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra. I have never heard anything quite like these compositions, and they rank amongst Desplat's finest work.
The plot is thoughtful and dense, bringing historical context to this chaotic caper full of murder, deception, loyalty and romance. Just how much is happening simultaneously caught up with me when you realize Gustav is being pursued on suspicion of murder and art theft. Anderson’s trademark aesthetics have been honed and buffed up here, and this madcap delight is typically energetic and formally astounding (yet the scale here is peaked to include a daring prison escape, a pursuit down a mountain and other extravagant backdrops for the chaos).
The hotel centrepiece is without doubt the greatest set Anderson has ever utilized, adorned with an eye-popping colour scheme, pleasing design and elaborate textures. His fusing of form and function has never been bettered; his ability to isolate moments of humour within the frame, and link them by setting has rarely been sharper. Only a few scenes that extend for too long, and a curiously poor continuity error, are clear faults.
The visual worlds at play here – the grand design of the Budapest, the dark interiors of Madame D’s estate, the flour-coated kitchen at Mendl’s Bakery, the labyrinthine hallways of the Kuntz Museum, and a mountain-top monastery – are bursting with detail, obsessively stuffed with flourishes that provoke great amusement.
This is a story has been passed down through history from Zero to the writer, and eventually to his readers for decades and centuries to come; from a time when the hotel was is in its prime, to a more-dilapidated state, where writers and intellectuals would escape for isolation, and eventually disappearing, remaining only in the pages of a book. Similarly, the hotel itself is passed down from owner to owner, each with personal motivations to keep it open. One of the most fascinating analyses I have read about The Grand Budapest is from Peter Labuza about the vertical principles in the film. Anderson commonly uses those static sideways dolly shots, linking the activities in uniquely furnished settings (as if they are all art of an enormous dollhouse). Here, the image is reduced by aspect ratio, and the top and bottom of the frame become the primary source of entry and exit (ladders being lowered, elevators rising etc). This is just one of the nuances of the film, further evidence of Anderson’s strict adherence to detail.
Like Anderson's previous films The Grand Budapest Hotel is a technical marvel and a treasure to repeatedly admire. It contains a richly characterized and thoroughly entertaining adventure, yet is tinged with sadness. It sits up on the mountain of Anderson's cinematic oeuvre and I suspect that as years pass, and re-watches mount, it will continue to retain its charm.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.