The Magnificent Anderson
The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era. It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.
The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another. When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.
As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character). Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn. Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect. What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting. Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this. Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest. In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.
Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job. Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”
Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi. At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.
This is a film that demands attention from the first frame. One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end). On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are). Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting. Agatha only exists because Zero likes her. Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge. Inmates? Hotel guests? Soldiers? All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real. The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout. There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time. The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role? For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.
There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it. Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country. The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards. As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside. As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card. Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort. The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.
The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath. The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him. But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe). It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly. It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down). Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.