The Grand Budapest Hotel

[Books & Culture; March 2014]

The Grand Budapest Hotel is surely the most Wes-Andersony of all the Wes Anderson movies, and if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson movie, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Try this: of all contemporary filmmakers, Anderson is the one most likely to provoke reviewers to use the words “fey” and “twee.”

Anderson’s films are a feast for the eyes, carefully color-coordinated, minutely arranged, and crammed with whimsical details. The style could be called Millionaire’s Daughter’s Dollhouse. Through these sets walk oddball characters who grapple with their situations in amusingly misguided ways. They come up against characters who are thoroughly egotistic, though amusingly oblivious about it, and other characters who remain amusingly deadpan no matter what chaos ensues around them. There’s plenty of perfectly-orchestrated amusement in these films, but not much heart. Characters in these films seem almost like extensions of the scenery—bits of set dressing that just happen to walk about. Stories aren’t told in a way that gathers momentum, but rather in a droll, aloof manner, cushioned with empty air.

As much as I admire the aesthetic achievement of Anderson’s films (for example, The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001, and Moonrise Kingdom, 2102), I find them only sporadically engaging. He’s the director least likely to provoke reviewers to use the words “emotionally satisfying.”

As the lights dimmed for a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was already rehearsing lines for a critical review. But before long I noticed something. I was smiling. Sometimes I was even laughing. The enjoyment of penning a negative review was being crowded out by enjoyment of the movie itself. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the most visually exquisite of all Anderson’s films, but, surprisingly, it’s also the most accessible.

The main character is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the dazzling concierge of the hotel, itself an equally-dazzling pink-tinted confection high in the mountains of Zubrowka. (A title card tells us that it lies at the eastern edge of Europe, and was “once the seat of an empire.”) The year is 1932, when the hotel was a fashionable destination during the lull between the World Wars.

We meet M. Gustave on the day a new Lobby Boy has been employed, and this arrival gives an opportunity for exposition. As M. Gustave strides through the sumptuous lobby, approving menus and critiquing flower arrangements, he imparts wisdom like “Rudeness is fear” (so a rude guest needs reassurance). The Boy-in-training is a teen named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), and he wears a purple uniform and a cap embroidered in gold, “LOBBY BOY.” He has a pencil-thin moustache that he applied with a pencil. M. Gustave is impeccable in a purple jacket and lavender vest, moving in a cloud L’Air de Panache. (Zero says in voiceover, “He was the most liberally-perfumed man I have ever encountered.”) When Zero, M. Gustave, and a lanky purple-uniformed elevator operator are lined up side-by-side in shiny red elevator, it’s a sample of the visual delight Anderson is known for.

M. Gustave is dapper, efficient, and has a gift for persuasively elegant speech, but there’s something else we need to know: he’s a ladies’ man. It’s true, his private tastes may run more broadly; when a character says, “We think you’re a real straight fellow,” he responds “Well, I’ve never been accused of that before, but I appreciate the sentiment.” But such preferences haven’t stopped him from making a side career out of tending to lady guests who are wealthy, blonde, and well up in years. He caps a flowery description of a paramour with these blunt words:

M. Gustave: She was dynamite in the sack, by the way.

Zero: She was eighty-four.

M. Gustave: Eh. I’ve had older.

(This might be a good place to note that The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R for Language, Some Sexual Content, and Violence. There are only small amounts of the latter two, but the F word abounds.)

That 84-year-old playgirl, Madame C.V. Desgoffe und Taxis, is portrayed by 50-something Tilda Swinton. Though (by my guess) her total onscreen time is less than two minutes, she’s been given a makeover so meticulous, from Dairy Queen hairdo to saggy red mouth, that you wish the camera would linger and let us take it in. In this film, tantalizing images are always being whisked out of sight before we’ve had enough time to savor them. As the showbiz adage goes: Always leave them wanting more.

When M. Gustave learns that Madame D. has died, he and Zero rush to the palace. Numerous family members and hangers-on have turned up for the reading of the will, and when the executor reveals that Madame D. has given M. Gustave her most valuable possession, a Renaissance painting, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) erupts in rage.

Dmitri: You’re not getting ‘Boy with Apple,’ you f***ing fruit!

M. Gustave: Now, how is that supposed to make me feel?

Once this story gets underway it doesn’t stop, with chases across the frozen landscape, down an Olympic ski slope, through the hotel, through a jail, through an art museum, through a monastery, up the stairs, over the roofs, and under the ground. Characters are in constant motion, whether contained in a car, train, elevator, or gondola lift, or just dashing across the moonlit snow in lively silhouette.

After a torturous escape M. Gustave urgently asks Zero for his L’Air de Panache, and is incredulous that he hasn’t brought it. The incident clicked a memory for me of Everett McGill, lead character of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?  (2000), who, while fleeing sheriffs and bloodhounds, never stopped trying to find a tin of Dapper Dan hair treatment. I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel for many of the same reasons I liked O Brother. This is an action movie of a sort—a murder mystery and caper comedy—but it’s more fun than anything else Anderson has made.

Is it nothing but fun? There are allusions to rise of Nazism, in the form of the ZigZag Troops whose search prompts M. Gustave’s desperate flight. But these characters are here to serve the needs of the plot, rather than to explore the nature of evil. It’s not a “message” movie.

And what about the elaborate framing device? The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a scene set in 1985, with a girl carrying a copy of the book that is supposedly the basis of the movie. She has come to pay homage at the author’s monument, which she does by adding a hotel key to the dozens already hanging upon it. Next we see that author (Tom Wilkinson) at some earlier time (1970s? If there was a title card, I missed it), recording a video of himself as he explains how the book’s story came to him. Then we see the same author (now Jude Law) in 1968 staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which has declined to a shabby condition under Soviet rule. He meets Zero, who has grown up to be F. Murray Abraham, and is now owner of the hotel. Zero then recounts the story that unfolds before our eyes. These story-frames are magnificently executed, but not necessary; while the aging Zero is indeed a figure of pathos, once the action begins it’s easy to forget the multi-frame set-up entirely.

On the same note, Anderson shot the film in three different aspect ratios (that refers to the width of the movie image; early movies were squarish, but became wider in the 1950s, and yet wider more recently). Most viewers won’t notice this, because they look at the image, not its borders. It’s clever, but the practical effect is slight. It’s like composing your poetry as an acrostic; those who hear you recite it at the coffeehouse are unlikely to notice you went to the extra trouble.

So there are elements in this movie that an audience might miss, but that won’t cause any loss. This may be the first Wes Anderson movie that a broad, popular audience can enjoy. That’s something to cheer, because some artists are tempted to go the other way, becoming more determinedly artsy with each success, as if trying to drive away the common herd. Anderson has instead told a good story well, which has not always been the case (if you have to, see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004).  There’s an added value, in that there are many more clever touches in the script and on the screen than you can pick up in a first or even second viewing. The Grand Budapest Hotel will reward re-watching, and might even herald a new phase of Wes Anderson filmmaking, which can at last be described with the words like “engaging” and “delightful.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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