The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, directed by Wes Anderson, 99 minutes, USA)
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Wes Anderson is the two-word answer to the increasingly asked question: What good is a liberal arts education? Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom, that’s what.There have been times in this country’s history when we’ve had to take stock, look into our hearts and ask ourselves: Do we really want to live in a world without English majors? And this is one of those times. Which only makes The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson’s eighth full-length feature, all the more grand and essential. Let us rejoice, then, bundled up in our winter beards and our Blonde On Blonde scarves and check-in to The Hotel Andersonia where we will shelter in high style for a 99 minute respite from the ordinary, and the brutes and the vulgarians that lord over it.
Set in 1932, in the mythical alpine East European republic of Zubrowka on the eve of war, the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel centers around the unfolding endgame of one M. Gustave, the perfumed, poetry-reciting, purple-tuxedoed concierge played with impeccable diction, grace and wit by Ralph Fiennes. M. Gustave is a touchstone to the fast-vanishing old-money grandeur and in-bred couth of Old Europe. Gustave moonlights as an omnisexual loverman for the scores of aging, monied and crushingly lonely doyennes that check in and out of The Grand Budapest. His latest dowager love interest, the octogenarian Madame D. (played with decrepit aplomb by a prosthetically-pruned Tilda Swinton), is poisoned by her no-goodnik scions — the dastardly Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (a devilishly mustachioed Adrien Brody, who easily could have found work in the 1920s tying damsels to train tracks) and a sibling trio of card-playing old maids — who have managed to frame M. Gustave for her murder. Dimitri’s dirty work is handled by Jopling, a fang-toothed, brass-knuckles-and-black-leather henchman played with malevolent gusto by Willem Dafoe.
For the remainder of the film, Gustave will endeavor to elude the clutches of Jopling and police chief Henckels (a caped and mustachioed Ed Norton wearing the high hat of officialdom, as always playing a man that’s a little too nice for the job he has to do) and his men, clear his name and reveal what OJ Simpson used to call “the real killers,” the process of which entails a hilarious, Rube-Goldberg-style prison break, a breathtaking alpine ski chase, and an Old West-style shootout across the ornately tier-ed mezzanine of The Grand Budapest. Assisting Gustave in his quest for truth, justice and his personal freedom is Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the coffee-skinned war refugee that Gustave is mentoring in the Jedi-like ways of the Lobby Boy. Also lending a helping hand is Zero’s pretty-and-plucky pastry chef apprentice fiancé, a quartet of rough-neck prison inmates led by a jailhouse tattooed, skinheaded Harvey Keitel (who inexplicably speaks with a gravelly Bensonhurst accent), and the full weight and power of The Society Of The Crossed Keys, a secret society of tuxedoed grand hotel concierges led by Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, who are able to pull just about any string with a phone call or a long-standing favor called in from friends in high places. In this vanishing age, where all the world is a grand hotel and we are merely seasonal guests, concierges are the deus ex machina.
The plot unfolds across a snow-flecked toylike tableau of velveteen suites, cobblestone streets, criss-crossing cable cars, cloistered train coaches and the cavernous, sumptuous interiors of the Grand Budapest, all writ vibrant by cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s lacquered palette — deep cerulean blues, fevered scarlets and frosted pinks. On the edges of every frame are the soon-to-be-unleashed dogs of war, intimations of Fascism and the slaughter, the sorrow and the pity that will inevitably follow.
Many have pointed out that this is Wes Anderson’s lightest, laughingest feature not involving fox puppets since Bottle Rocket. And it is true that The Grand Budapest Hotel is absent the tragic preambles of prior Anderson narratives: Rushmore‘s Max Fischer, beret-topped bespectacled son of a lowly-but-likable barber, masquerading as one of the monied swells at a posh prep school, has lost his mother; the child-prodigy Tenenbaums lost the plot along with their pater familias and wound up has-beens before they are old enough to vote; Steve Zissou grapples with the grisly death of a beloved colleague in the pitiless maws of the fabled Jaguar shark, as well as his loudening sense of his own heir-less impotence and impending mortality; the bruised and broken brothers Whitman board The Darjeeling Limited and search the subcontinent for the answer to the riddle of why their mother abandoned them while Kinks songs play, and so on.
But there is plenty of dark doings in the course of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s 99 minutes: A Persian cat splatters on the sidewalk after being thrown from a third story window, a woman is decapitated, another dies open-eyed from strychnine poisoning, a butler is strangled to death in the confessional of mountaintop monastery, and yet another (lawyer Deputy Kovacs, played with Freudian dapperness by Jeff Goldblum) has his fingers cut off before being snuffed out by Willem Dafoe and stuffed into a museum sarcophagus. And Moustafa’s village was wiped out and his entire family killed when war broke out in his unnamed country of origin. Not to mention an even blacker darkness is looming on the edges of the screen: Europe is on the eve of world war and genocide on an industrial scale and when it’s all over half the continent will be a smoking ruin and the other half will be jailed behind the Iron Curtain of a dreary and corrupt communist police state. And in the end, (SPOILER ALERT) M. Gustave is pulled off a train and gunned down by a SS-like death squad.
But despite all that, the film ends on an upbeat note because the old world civility — which is to say elegance and manners and human decency — that M. Gustave represents lives on in the richly-appointed storytelling that brings all the aforementioned to our attention. First in the form of Moustafa (a warm, oaken-voiced F. Murray Abraham) now grown old and telling the tale of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s twilit last gleaming over dinner to a tweedy, pipe smoking author played by Jude Law, who will write a book about it that will strike a resonant chord with succeeding generations of young people who will, year after year, pilgrimage to the bust covered in hotel keys that marks his grave in the Lutz Cemetery. Because even though the forces of darkness may have won the battle, in the end they lost the war. At the Hotel Andersonia, art trumps evil every time, that’s why we keep coming back every year.