As with his other movies, Wes Anderson has described The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest feature, as a fable, and it is through the lens of fable/fairy tale that the Anderson oeuvre is best viewed. Throughout his career, Anderson has developed a style that creates a dreamy, childlike version of the real world where his characters navigate new settings for his obsessions, which include family and loss and nostalgia.
The movie is structured like a set of four Russian nesting dolls, with each layer representing a particular year (the present, 1985, 1968 and 1932, respectively). This being Wes Anderson, he frames the different periods by shooting each in a different aspect ratio. Further, the main action of the movie takes place in 1932, and is subdivided into five chapters.
The film opens in the present with a young lady visiting a cemetery, where she finds a monument to a man identified only as “Author.” On the monument are dozens of sets of keys, left by fans, to which she adds her own before opening the man’s book, titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
By way of reading along with the girl, the movie flashes back to 1985, where the Author (Tom Wilkinson) recites what is likely the preface of the book, telling how he came to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968, when he was stricken with scribes fever, a common malady of the intelligentsia of that time.
This leads us to 1968, where we see a younger version of the Author (Jude Law), hanging out in the shabbily appointed lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel. The place is only a shadow of its former self, and it is here that the Author meets the hotel’s famous and mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).
The two dine together in the hotel’s cavernous but empty grand dining hall, and Moustafa tells the Author the story of how he came to work at the Grand Budapest Hotel and come under the tutelage of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s larger-than-life concierge and benevolent dictator who micromanaged every detail of the guest experience – not unlike Wes Anderson himself.
This takes us to 1932, where we will stay until the final scenes. Moustafa is a young boy (Tony Revolori), orphaned and alone in his new country, and he idolizes M. Gustave, who takes him under his wing, first as Lobby Boy and then as a surrogate son/brother.
M. Gustave has a habit of getting “involved” with elderly blondes with low self-esteem who also have lots of money. He lavishes them wth attention and pleasure, and they adore him in return. He’s a dandyish fop of a man, vain and blow-hardy, but genteel and likeable.
The death of one of his lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), brings M. Gustave and Mosutafa to her estate to hear the reading of the last will and testament. When it is revealed that M. Gustave is to receive her prized possession, a priceless Dutch painting, that’s when the plot kicks into overdrive, becoming part screwball comedy, part caper.
Sensing a battle, M. Gustave and Moustafa sneak off with the painting. Madame D’s son, Dimitri (Adrian Brody), along with his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) are determined to get the painting away from M. Gustave and frame him for the murder of Madame D.
This gives us a prison escape that is quintessential Wes Anderson whimsy, a secret society of Europen concierges who come to the aid of M. Gustave and Moustafa, a clandestine meeting at a mountaintop observatory/monastery involving miniatures and a wild and crazy chase scene, capped off with a denouement that is quite moving.
The world described in The Grand Budapest Hotel, like the one in The Royal Tenenbaums is a carefully constructed alternate reality, meant to closely resemble their real-life inspirations, New York and pre-war Europe. It is a highly stylized, fairy tale rendering that allows Anderson to explore his themes without a lot of baggage that comes along with telling a story of Europe at the moment that World War II is breaking out. It frees Anderson to cherry-pick images and ideas and characters, exactly as a fable does. In this world, because it’s not quite real, the fascists and nazis can be played for laughs.
There are all the other flourishes we’ve come to expect in a Wes Anderson movie – the “uniforms” each character wears, the color palette, the Futura font and the tinkly, music box music that makes us feel were are indeed in a fairy tale.
As much as I love Anderson’s movies, I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten choked up at one…until the last scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The fairy tale nature of his films mutes the sadness somehow. In this case, something is different. I don’t know if that is due to Anderson, or due to the extraordinary performance of Ralph Fiennes, whose portrayal of M. Gustave reminds me of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum. Anderson’s characters tend to be two-dimensional, if you want to pick on him, but in the case of Fiennes and Hackman, their collaborations added depths that might not have been on the page. Fiennes gives us, in M. Gustave, a rich and flavorful portrait of a man ate up with vanity and insecurity who also grows to love others as much as himself (much like Royal Tenenbaum).
M. Gustave’s transformation is from a man whose ideals were directed externally to his work and appearance, to one whose ideals are more fully realized through the expression of his devotion to Moustafa. He remains the dandy, but with depth.
We see this play out in three train rides. In the first train trip, to see Madame D’s corpse, M. Gustave, perhaps unwittingly, risks his security for the sake of Zero. On the way home, they sign their sacred oath in which Zero, a lowly newcomer to Zubrowka, becomes the heir to M. Gustave’s estate (worth nothing at the time of the signing). Finally, there’s the last train ride, in which M. Gustave stands up for Zero, the way a father would for his only son. In the first and third examples, the world has changed, but M. Gustave doesn’t see it, and the scenes are played with a beautiful balance of comedy and pathos.
As hinted at above, the cast is rounded out by many fine performers and performances, an Anderson trademark, and Tony Revolori more than holds his own with Dafoe, Brody, and others with whom he shares the screen. If nothing else, he should be able to make a living as a member of Anderson’s ever-expanding troupe of loyal players.
As to Anderson’s troupe of actors, I’m reminded of John Huston’s statement that most of his directing came in the casting. If he was making a Clark Gable picture, he’d hire Clark Gable and let him be Clark Gable. We see this brilliantly fleshed out in the casting of Dafoe as a quiet killer, Goldblum as the doomed lawyer, and Keitel as the grizzled old convict. As with a lot of Anderson’s characterizations, the casting is a kind of shorthand where the actor’s baggage fills in some of the gaps that may be on the page. I don’t know if that’s good filmmaking or not, but it works for Anderson the same way a fairy tale may simply say that a knight was noble or a king was good.
If the casting, writing, and filmmaking add-up to a “typical” Wes Anderson fable, so does the moral of the tale. As with most all of Anderson’s movies, we have the orphaned young Moustafa, somewhat like Max Fisher in Rushmore, Sam in Moonrise Kingdom or Eli in The Royal Tenenbaums, searching for a surrogate family, which he finds in M. Gustave and Agatha, his sweetheart.
Anderson’s movies almost always deal with attempts to fix broken families or create new ones in the absence of the original one. Community is important to Anderson, both in his movies and the process in which they’re made. During the filming of The Grand Budapest Hotel, he had the cast stay together in a small inn, where the dinners were prepared by one of Anderson’s friends nearly every night. The cast lived communally, at his insistence. Anderson makes no secret of the joy he derives from the collaborative aspects of making movies, as though the thought of working alone were a fright.
And so it is that families, either by blood or through self-selection, are at the center of Wes Anderson’s movies. Though never perfect, they are held up as something worth fighting for. M. Gustave and young Moustafa, with their unlikely pairing, make The Grand Budapest Hotel something of a father/son buddy pic, so in tune are they to one another.
Additionally, The Grand Budapest Hotel deals heavily in nostalgia, lamenting a bygone era that has been left behind and nearly forgotten. Moustafa calls the timeframe of his story “the best years of my life.” He goes on to observe M. Gustave’s nostalgia by accusing him of aping the lifestyle of a previous generation. Nostalgia echoes throughout the movie, especially as the movie works its way through each successive timeframe layer.
Finally, a sense of loss permeates The Grand Budapest Hotel. As each timeframe gives way to the one previous, we sense the loss – of youth, of lives, of culture – that came with the two world wars and communism and simply with the living of life, where nothing lasts forever. Anderson romanticizes the people and places in The Grand Budapest Hotel, serving us a dish we love to savor and miss, once the last bite has been eaten.
In a wonderful moment that beautifully captures the fine line Anderson walks between mourning and shrugging off loss, M. Gustave tells Zero, just after they are pistol whipped on the first train trip, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant…oh, fuck it.” It’s as if, mid-way trough this well-practiced speech that props up the façade of his life, he wearies of it, recognizing the silliness of his pose and understanding that poses aren’t necessary with a brother.
In short, Wes Anderson makes bedtime stories for adults, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he is at the top of his game.