Grand Budapest Hotel

It is impossible, so far as I can tell, to discuss a Wes Anderson movie without discussing Wes Anderson.  If he were a car company, he’d be Morgan. Are his movies good, or are they simply charming? Is the depth an illusion? Is it too abstract, too inaccessible? Does it matter? There is a uniqueness to his films that is hard to articulate, but completely recognizable. Yes, there’s the symmetry of the shots, the faded colour palette, the 2 dimensional movement of all of his characters (people move either towards/away from the camera or directly across the camera), the whimsical melancholy… But he’s not reinventing the wheel here. The elements of a Wes Anderson movie can be found elsewhere, and yet you can look at a still of a Wes Anderson film and almost always recognize it as such.  What is Anderson’s place in the film world? What does he contribute to the greater medium? How has he influenced other film makers? I have no idea, and I honestly think there is little value to be had in the answers.  On to his latest offering, then.

I endeavour to not spoil the movie any more than the trailers do, but in the event that you, like I, avoid trailers for desire of as blank a movie watching experience as humanly possible, I will leave you with the simple review that this movie is wonderful. Perhaps it’s not for you if you’re not a fan of Anderson’s previous movies, but this one is arguably his funniest, perhaps his least personal (but not without a weight of its own) and quickly my pick for best Anderson film. Definitely recommended.

Ralph Fiennes and Saoirse Ronan
Ralph Fiennes and Saoirse Ronan

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a tale, told through 3 layers of flashback, of a (grand) hotel concierge and his protege lobby boy. The concierge is esteemed by all of his guests, particularly by the elderly, rich, female guests who come to the hotel almost exclusively to visit him (and also to sleep with him). When one of them in particular passes, he goes to the reading of her will, where it is announced he has inherited a wildly valuable painting. Her family vows that he will never have the painting, and so he chooses to “steal” it. And so begins our caper adventure.

The first and most obvious thing to address is the unbelievable cast. It’d be a word count padding exercise to list the cast here, suffice to say that there was a lot of wattage going on here. In this big ensemble, though, Fiennes steals every scene. There’s other notable commendations to go around, particularly to Adrien Brody’s wonderful turn as a snotty villain, and Tony Revolori as our lobby boy, but Fiennes commanded attention any time he was on screen.

Perhaps my favourite part of the film, and this may speak to my own personal interest, is its utilization of the fictional country of Zubrowka. Setting aside the mind-blowing level of detail and the marketing material’s amazingness, the simple choice to have it take place in an alternate reality country gave Anderson a huge amount of creative room, and it’s clear that he took full advantage. The country in question, Zubrowka, is clearly a mix of Austria and Hungary. The Zig-Zag division, this reality’s Nazis, sweep into Zubrowka without violence much in the way that Nazis swept into Austria, and the country was left under a communist rule following the war in the way that Hungary was. This fictional reality gives Anderson the advantage of tagging the baddies with the gravitas and weight that come from their clear associations (the train scenes come to mind), while also not being burdened with it necessarily, being able to portray things as whimsical when he wants (the hotel shootout scene comes to mind). A similar utility was applied to the setting. There’s no need to be tied to the actual timeline of events, and perhaps most importantly, it obscures what’s happening off camera. If a scene opens with “Vienna, 1940”, you know exactly what the state of the world is. By fictionalizing it to this level, the viewer is on the same level as the characters. You see the headline “War is Coming” and you know vaguely what’s going on, but not precisely. Is the war going well for Zubrowka? Has the crack-down worsened? We don’t know because Anderson doesn’t want us to know.

What else is there to talk about? The soundtrack, by Desplat, is gorgeous. The direction is pitch perfect. The script is excellent. The visuals are brilliant. A moment should be taken to talk about the delightful ski chase scene, which is equal parts whimsical, silly, absurd and actually thrilling. There were several moments that jarred the hell out of you. Perhaps self awareness on Anderson’s part, perhaps a simple attempt to inject various flavours (humour, horror) into their respective scenes, whatever the motivation they were brilliant. I’d also like to say that there’s some brilliant misdirection on Anderson’s part that stands among the best I’ve seen in a film.

The commentary on the way old society dealt with the growing Nazi problem could not have been more sublimely handled. Norton’s character was an excellent tool, the general ignoring of the war was great… I cannot speak more to this without spoiling, but I think it to be a brilliant examination of the kind of apathy that, in part, allowed facism to thrive.

Perhaps I should speak about the film’s flaws. Perhaps it could’ve been longer, but I feel like the ending played into the melancholy. Perhaps the layers of flashback were too many. Perhaps having established stars in small roles was a needless distraction. It’s hard for me to point to something and say “boy that sucked,” because frankly, I loved this film. Go see it.

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