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Wes Anderson Retrospective: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a candy coloured cupcake in a box.

A delightful treat that showcases all the charm of the director’s body of work with none of the alienating complexity. His highest grossing film to date as well as his highest rated on IMDB, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most widely appreciated film and my pick for those wanting to dip their toes into the director’s work. It’s Wes Anderson for the people.

The movie is set in Eastern Europe at the titular “Grand Budapest Hotel”, a fictional mountain retreat for Europe’s elite. Ralph Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, the hotel’s exceptionally meticulous and liberally perfumed concierge who, aside from his day-to-day duties running the hotel, moonlights as an upper-class gigolo for the hotel’s rich, lonely and blonde clientele. The narrator informs us: “It seemed to be an essential part of his duties, but I believe it was also his pleasure.” – summing up the opportunistic but genuine nature of M. Gustave. The other of the film’s central characters, Zero (played exceptionally by Tony Revolori in what was the film’s best performance), is at once both our guide as narrator and central figure in the tale that unfolds. The hotel’s newly minted lobby boy in training, Zero is an orphan and war refugee who quickly thrives under the tutelage of M. Gustave. The two quickly develop a bond, first as mentor and mentee, then as guardian and dependent, and finally as friends and equals. Although the film deals with many themes including those of love, greed, maturity, war and fascism, it is this theme of friendship and the lengths people will go to for those they care about that is at its core.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson

The film’s plot, like most of Anderson’s films, does not seek to reinvent the wheel. The premise is a fairly typical murder mystery which centres around the mysterious death of Madame D. (played by an incredibly convincing, 54 year old Tilda Swinton), an elderly widow and heir to a massive family fortune who also happens to be a long-time patron of M. Gustave. Following her death, a battle takes place over her estate. Distant relatives and old acquaintances come out of the woodwork in the hope of some benevolent bequeathment from the will. When it is revealed that M. Gustave is to inherit the priceless portrait “Boy with Apple”, he manages to incur the wrath of the entire family, not least the film’s antagonist and Madame D.’s son, Dmitri (played by Anderson regular Adrien Brody). A series of events lead to Gustave and Zero appropriating “Boy with Apple” while Dimitri frames Gustave for Madame D.’s murder, there is the orchestration of a Rube Goldberg-like prison escape, a chase scene featuring a homicidal, leather-clad, and severely under-bitten Willem Dafoe, and the eventual clearing of Gustave’s name as well as the discovery of an amendment to the original will resulting in Gustave’s inheritance of Madame D.’s entire fortune. Of course, this being an Anderson film and all, means that the finer details and exceptional execution add just as much flavour as the plot.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson

One such example is the WWII backdrop to the story. The presence of the great war is felt throughout whilst never receiving the spotlight. At one point the Grand Budapest becomes headquarters to the occupying ZZ forces – a thinly-veiled reference to Hitler’s SS. On multiple occasions, we witness racism and xenophobia directed towards Zero – his immigration status is subject to regular checks including one instance where his documentation is destroyed before his very eyes, resulting in the chain of events that cumulate in the death of M. Gustave. The film also deals with themes of love and loss as exemplified by Zero’s relationship with Agatha (played by Saoirse Ronan). The couple’s relationship blossoms amid constant danger and turbulence, with each lover forced to constantly display bravery and dedication protect the other. Here, I am reminded of M. Gustave’s role in the couple’s courtship, first as parent then as chaperone, instilling a love of poetry and the theatric into each in turn. It is in this capacity that Gustave delivers one of the lines of the film:

“Never be jealous in this life Zero, not even for an instant”

If only we could all live up to that standard.

At the end of the film we find that Agatha passed away along with the couple’s infant son, one of the film’s many nods to realism. Later, in one of the many juxtapositions of individual (love) and the collective (state politics), we find that Zero has given up the large fortune he inherited as the sole heir of M. Gustave. The reason? In order to retain ownership of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the face of a state seizure of assets. “The hotel I keep for Agatha. We were happy here, for a while”. Here we are reminded of the role that forces outside of our control play in the fortunes of men.

But it’s not just the plot nuances that make this such a great film. The costumes are something to be celebrated. The staff uniforms of the Grand Budapest Hotel are impeccable (the deadpan elevator operator comes to mind). Agatha’s birthmark adds depth to an already deep character. Descriptions of Gustave’s Eau de Panache leave you wishing you could smell it. However, it is Zero’s moustache that takes the cake in this department. Mirroring his journey to manhood, it is initially drawn on, but by the end of the film he is finally able to grow his own.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson

The script was also equally as exceptional, with Zero and Gustave delivering regular memorable quotes. One that comes to mind:

Gustave: “she was shaking like a shitting dog”

Zero: “truly”

Finally, the acting was excellent. I can’t think of a role that wasn’t well cast or a performance that was lacking.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention Anderson’s acute ability to needle the art world. Every bit the world class artist himself, Anderson is clearly able to maintain a healthy and ironic distance with his chosen profession. The hilariously tongue-in-cheek “Boy with Apple”, a nod to Renaissance painting, is ridiculous in concept but strikes a cord due to the way it approximates reality. As Gustave says “It’s a masterpiece. The rest of this shit is worthless junk”. Why? Because public opinion says so, not because of anyone’s subjective relationship to the art itself. What makes one piece priceless and another worthless? Only what the next person is willing to pay for it. Anderson acutely understands the absurdity of the art market. In another ironic twist we see Zero replace “Boy with Apple” with an outrageous erotic painting depicting two women masturbating in the style of Egon Schiele. Despite Schiele producing his Avant-Garde work approximately 90 years prior to the release of this film, it makes me smile to think of how many eyebrows were raised the world over – and you can bet it’s what Anderson desired! In a final twist, Dmitri destroys what would now be considered a priceless piece of art, demonstrating the dual conundrum of art being unappreciated in its own time and the absurdity of ever trying to put a monetary value on a piece of art in the first place.

So who is this film for?

My response mirrors Zero’s line when asked why he wished to work at The Grand Budapest Hotel:

“Why, who wouldn’t, at the Grand Budapest sir. It’s an institution.”

In short, this film is for everyone and I would urge you to watch it if you haven’t already done so. Ultimately, some die-hard fans might not find it as rewarding as some of Anderson’s heavier films, but herein lies its universal appeal. It showcases all the director’s hallmarks without alienating audiences like “The Life Aquatic” or “The French Dispatch” can. To quote the film “[it] sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace”. What more can one really ask for from a film?