I have good news for Wes Anderson fans, and even better news for them. Remarkably, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is every inch the visual spectacle and rapid-fire wonder that it appears to be in the trailer. Never once during its running time does it let up from its visual seduction of the senses, with shots so artfully composed and arranged you could almost pick any one at random and frame it as a piece on your wall. The better news is something that I feel the trailer doesn’t adequately reflect: not only is this a hilarious and lovely Wes Anderson film, it’s also among his most heartfelt and manages to carry over his pet themes of fantastical dreamers pitted against a cruel reality to surprisingly poignant effect.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL may be one of Wes Anderson’s most fully and beautifully imagined and executed creations of set design yet, a towering pastel-pink palace filled to overflowing with colorful delights like towering jeweled pastries and winding staircases and royal purple-outfitted caretakers completely committed to its smooth operation. In a plot scheme whose nested quality parallels the frame-within-a-frame device of much of the film’s optical flair, the hotel is first shown in the beginning as a grand space of disrepair, an empty, echoing cavern of accumulated neglect and failed dreams. A young writer is drawn to its loneliness and former magnitude, and to its owner, Mr. Moustafa, who now bathes and walks its halls in relative anonymity.
As Mr. Moustafa begins to tell his sad story, we see the hotel in its flourishing glory days, inhabited by its signature character, M. Gustave, an ostentatious, roguish, and charming flirt played for everything he’s worth by Ralph Fiennes, who makes a seamless transition into the world of Anderson and his deadpan comic style. In a delivery that nails the literate, antiquated, and mannered dialogue that Anderson provides him with, Fiennes fully animates M. Gustave as the tragicomic character he is, a man of taste and moral code who is quickly fading into obsolescence against the subtle backdrop of the war. Tony Revolori holds his own as his young and completely devoted protégé Zero Moustafa, an immigrant refugee in shape contrast to this life of luxuries, who is fully dedicated to the system of the Grand Budapest, which gives his life structure and meaning. This relationship forms the emotional core of the film, as their personalities complement and bump against each other throughout the plot in ways that are often unexpectedly moving, Zero providing the meek, timid, but always faithful foil to Gustave’s larger-than-life scheming personality.
The fast-paced, convoluted plot centers around M. Gustave’s propensity to woo elderly rich ladies, and one of his many lovers who died under mysterious circumstances, Tilda Swinton. As M. Gustave races against her family to settle a will and a mystery, many twists and turns, introduced with whimsical title cards, provide excuses for pet members of the Anderson repertoire to play characters who make an indelible impression even if they appear briefly. Anderson elevates his style to its most exaggerated yet, creating a cast of players who seem to come to life out of a fairy tale in Willem Defoe’s absolutely villainous Jopling, all black leather, motorcycles, and wolfish grins, Harvey Keitel’s Ludwig, a terrifying heavily tattooed prisoner, Jeff Goldblum’s ethical and thorough attorney Deputy Kovacks, and Edward Norton’s straight-laced lawman Henckels. All of these characters, even when granted only a little screen time, manage to fully realize themselves as storybook personalities, with costume designs, gestures, and mannerisms so detailed they had to have been internalized. While Anderson caters to his fans with these appearances, he wisely ensures the crux of his story revolves around M. Gustave and the unknown Zero.
Naysayers could claim that Wes Anderson favors style over substance; I would argue that he has perfectly married the two. His style now *is* his substance, and they’ve become inseparable. The inflated, artificial, as Steve Prokopy put it, “pop-up storybook” look of his world perfectly reflects dreams just on the verge of crumbling, with constant attention to detail required to keep them afloat. His overly literate framing device plays around with omniscient narration, drawing out a continuous joke about a character’s death that has been foreshadowed but is constantly delayed. Anderson, now completely confident and self-aware of his own style, uses it to his own comic fancies, like when he employs his trademark slow camera pan to the left in one scene to show the grisly detail of a victim hastily dispatched by Jopling.
It is almost impossible how the film is able to maintain the breakneck pace portrayed in the trailer for its entire 99-minute run time, but it somehow does. Powered by Alexandre Desplat’s score, which provides a frantic and madcap but light-hearted music-box-like wonder to its elaborate chase scenes, it is always getting ahead of itself. M. Gustave is portrayed as running away through most of the film, whether on a sled, scooter, or by train car, as if he always has to get one step ahead of reality catching up with him. A couple of times, notably, he is stopped and paused by scenes of war and destruction that lie just beyond the outskirts of his carefully constructed terrarium world. Therein lays the tragedy that usually exists just beneath the surface of Anderson’s bittersweet brand of comedy: the Grand Budapest is certainly an institution, but it is an institution whose days are sadly numbered. It requires the collective belief of M. Gustave and his dedicated underlings like Zero to keep it afloat, and the minute those illusions are shattered, it becomes the relic of the past that it appears as in the beginning of the film.
Approximately 650 Chicagoans were treated to an advance screening of the film at the Music Box after enduring a cold three-hour wait. This only heightened the experience of seeing the film. Strangers bonded in line over the works of Anderson and other films, and were quick friends by the time they entered the theater. A particularly stunning stylistic maneuver, well-timed joke, or celebrity appearance received the appropriate laughter or oohing and aahing from an audience that was guaranteed to be dedicated and appreciative. A Q & A started by Steve Prokopy of Ain’t It Cool News and then put out to the audience for about an hour was one of the most articulate, intelligent, and charming of these I have ever seen, not only because of the filmmakers involved but because of the thoughtful questions asked. Eager fans waited their turn to ask about Anderson’s elaborately constructed sets, how he draws his inspiration from characters who fail, and the different film formats he used to shoot the film. Anderson, along with special guests that included Roman Coppola and newcomer Tony Revolori, who played the bellboy Zero, struck up a thoughtful and gracious rapport with their inquisitive fans, reflecting back the adoration clearly directed at them.
As I walked home through the snow thinking about the film’s message of a code of honor and chivalry that were becoming antiquated while still being practiced, I meditated on the random acts of kindness I had experienced from my fellow film fans over the course of the day, including one of them removing his glove and freezing his fingers to help me pull up ticket validation on my phone, and another refusing to cut in line even when we granted her permission, claiming she was an honest and fair person. There is something powerful about the Wes Anderson ethos, it seems, that is reflected by his rabid fan base, and it made me happy such people still exist, who can care about and appreciate such things. Mr. Henry in BOTTLE ROCKET may have phrased it best when he said, “The world needs dreamers.”
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