“Well how’s that supposed to make me feel?” asks Ralph Fiennes hilariously, playing Gustave H, the concierge of the titular Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Eastern European country Zubrowska. He asks the question after being berated by the son (Adriend Brody) of the late Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) whose passing may have just landed Gustave one of the family’s prized paintings, “Boy with Apple”. But the painting is only a jumping off point for The Grand Budapest Hotel, a story told in flashback, taking place between the two wars, as Gustave finds himself in prison, out of prison and knee deep in a murder mystery we’d expect from the likes of Agatha Christie, only this time told through the kaleidoscope lens of writer/director Wes Anderson.
The film, in fact, is told through two flashbacks, the first of which begins with a writer played by Jude Law in his younger years and Tom Wilkinson in his later. This writer is recounting the time he met Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the Grand Budapest Hotel lobby. Zero was a lobby boy in the days leading up to the death of Madame D. and he became Gustave’s most trusted friend. The story, as he tells it to this young writer who would eventually write a book detailing the events, tells of how the Grand Budapest eventually came to be his.
Inspired by Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, using three different aspect ratios (1.37, 1.85 and 2.39), a wealth of miniatures and a lovingly pastel production design, The Grand Budapest Hotel is every bit a Wes Anderson film as you’ve come to expect. Beyond his control of mise en scene, Grand Budapest continues Anderson’s tradition of unique characters, and in this sense the film is unmistably an Anderson feature. Perhaps that will turn some off, people believing a director must change from one film to the next. I’d argue while Anderson may remain in something of a comfort zone in his presentation, his characters and stories are certainly unique if you’re able to look beyond their quirks.
It’s Fiennes as Gustave that truly shines in Grand Budapest. Refined with only brief moments of vulgarity, he’s undoubtedly one of Anderson’s greatest creations. A lover of women of a certain age and never one to wake without dousing himself in his signature cologne, L’Air de Panache, leaving a scent reminding you of his presence, Gustave is precise and a detail oriented man with a focus on how to properly serve his guests. Such a man fits Anderson’s world, a world where clean lines have always been a trait just as much as anything obtuse serves as a clue to narrative disorder.
In this respect there is no better way to tell this story than Anderson’s boxy presentation. His framing of a scene and his stationary camerawork (courtesy of longtime DP, Robert D. Yeoman) is too often looked at as an affectation rather than an honest way of capturing life. Life hits us from all sides, most often catching us unprepared. Anderson’s films mimic this natural way of seeing the world and he uses it to great comedic and dramatic effect, coupled with some wonderful writing and performances beyond Fiennes alone, truly making this a magnificent feature as each of Anderson’s films seems better than the last.
All of Anderson’s regulars are in tow, that being Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman as well as those that are becoming continuing staples including Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and many others that have all now been featured in at least two of Anderson’s features.
Of this crop many have small and even limited roles. Nevertheless, Tilda Swinton is great and nearly unrecognizable, her true face hidden beneath a layer of latex, playing a character I can only presume is a nod to the classic Max OphÃ¼ls film The Earrings of Madame de…. Keitel is wonderful as Ludwig, a shirtless prisoner that can’t stop flexing as he talks and Dafoe is equally menacing and hilarious as Jopling, a hired assassin of few words.
Anderson also manages a great find in Tony Revolori playing Zero, working alongside Fiennes while this comedy caper with serious adult and political undertones plays out.
Also back is Moonrise Kingdom production designer Adam Stockhausen and composer Alexandre Desplat for a third go ’round after Moonrise and Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s hard to say if Desplat has topped his Fox score, but the theme running through Grand Budapest is every bit as grand as the film’s title.
At this point it seems nearly impossible to compare one Anderson film to the next as they all seem a part of a greater whole. A couple years ago I ranked all of his films up through Moonrise Kingdom and found a greater appreciation of each by revisiting them in order of their release. At the time it felt premature to place Moonrise Kingdom at #1, but now just as then, I feel Grand Budapest may be his finest film.
A lot of the enjoyment here is in the familiarity of style and a harkening back to his R-rated tone, which has been missing for a couple of films. Grand Budapest is a warm and soothing bath with familiar smells, which is to say it’s altogether wonderful. Time will obviously tell where this places in Anderson’s oeuvre, but for now I simply can’t wait to see it again.