Movies Without Pity
<i>The Grand Budapest Hotel</i>: Welcome to the Hotel Europa

Not since the Overlook has there been a cinematic hotel as immaculately constructed as The Grand Budapest Hotel, the titular lodging glimpsed in Wes Anderson's latest confection. That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the director's work, which consistently features some of the most lavish, yet carefully precise production design seen this side of an Architectural Digest layout. Still, even by Anderson's standards, the Grand Budapest is a honey of a setting: a rustic 1930s-era retreat perched amidst the picturesque hills of Zubrowka, the Eastern European nation that, on a map, would probably be located somewhere between Freedonia and Latveria. A private funicular deposits you on the hotel's stoop and, once you pass through the front doors, you're inside an opulent, high-ceilinged lobby, with the well-trained staff buzzing about, directing you to the dining room, spa, outdoor deck or your own quarters. Though it overlooks the outside world, the Grand Budapest functions as its own little universe where time itself seems to stand still.

That's all a carefully crafted illusion, of course, as the march of history can't be stopped… even by a man of such determined will as Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the fastidious concierge who keeps the Grand Budapest running with Swiss-watch timing. For decades, the mustachioed Gustave has held court at the hotel, choreographing events, training lobby boys -- including the newest one, orphan Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) -- and providing helpful services to the guests, paying particularly close attention to the older, wealthier widows -- such as ancient dowager Madame Céline (Tilda Swinton, buried under a deliberately comical amount of age makeup) -- who enter his domain. Outside the walls of his fortress, though, circumstances are conspiring to bring the Grand Budapest's king down. For starters, Madame Céline turns up dead following an apparent bit of foul play and wills an invaluable painting to her lover, a move that royally pisses off her son and heir, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who collaborates with his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to successfully frame Gustave for the crime. The concierge is summarily thrown in the slammer, temporarily transforming the movie into Anderson's version of The Great Escape, as Zero and his winsome baker girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) devise a scheme to spring him from the big house and recover his treasure before Dmitri can get his hands on it.

While all this personal drama is going on, Zubrowka itself is undergoing enormous changes as a new political and military power is making itself felt throughout Eastern Europe. These forces are represented by Albert Henckels (Edward Norton), who marches through the frame wearing a cap that bears a symbol that's not-accidentally reminiscent of Hitler's SS signage. Yes, war has come to the continent and with it, the end of the carefully cultivated civility practiced by men like Gustave. Viewed through that lens, the hotel (as well as the film itself) becomes a clear parable for the passing of a gilded age, with violence and death steadily chipping away at the walls of an isolated nation-state that believed they were above such petty cruelties. In fact, if you really wanted to get literary about it, The Grand Budapest Hotel could be read as Anderson's version of Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, in which another royal pain (though despite his curt manner, Gustave is, at heart, a much better person than Prospero) attempted to keep the horrors of the world at bay, only to have his palace invaded by the Grim Reaper anyway. Stylistically, the film is less Gothic than Poe, but it does share his flair for bloodshed, as the body count exceeds any of Anderson's past films and several characters depart this world in notably gruesome ways.

In the director's own words though, Poe was less of an influence on the film than author Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist who lived and wrote through the rise of Nazism in Europe, dying at his own hand in 1942. Zweig's onscreen stand-in is an unnamed author played, in succession, by a statue in the present day, Tom Wilkinson in the recent past and Jude Law in the 1960s, the latter of whom listens to the account of Gustave's life and times -- delivered by a now-grown Zero (F. Murray Abraham) -- that forms the bulk of the narrative. There's a grace with which this nesting-doll structure unfolds that's utterly beguiling and also appropriately mournful, complementing the general sense that Anderson is crafting a eulogy for a world that has long since vanished… if it ever existed at all. And as enjoyable as the central plot is, carried along by Fiennes's masterful performance and the screwball comedy-meets-caper movie plotting, the '60s-era sequences prove to be the most resonant parts of the film and represent a departure for Anderson in the way they allow signs of distress and rot to intrude upon his normally pristine environments. Though the Grand Budapest is still standing after the war, it's grandeur has been significantly reduced, replaced by a haunting atmosphere of vanished times and lingering ghosts that makes it not unlike the mountain abode the Torrance clan temporarily calls home.

I'll be honest: after my first (and so far, only) viewing, I wasn't ready to place The Grand Budapest Hotel among my favorite Wes Anderson productions. I certainly didn't flip for it in the same way I instantaneously responded to Moonrise Kingdom or Fantastic Mr. Fox, both of which boasted a host of memorable characters (as opposed to here, where only Gustave makes much of an initial impression) as well as more immediately relatable settings and storylines. Instead, Grand Budapest seems poised to fall into that category of Wes Anderson joints that benefit from further reflection and additional viewings -- movies that for me at least include Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, which have only grown richer and funnier when I've revisited them. (For all I know, The Life Aquatic -- the one film of his I flat-out didn't like -- may one day fall into this category as well, though that would require me to sit through it again.) What's special about this film is that, while it bears all the hallmarks of his by-now entirely too familiar style, it also finds him acknowledging the limitations of that style when it butts up against a certain measure of reality; with the Grand Budapest Hotel, he's built a beautiful self-contained world that he then proceeds to take apart piece-by-piece, because that's what the ravages of time and the carelessness of people do. (Anderson isn't Nietzsche, though, so the movie ends on an ultimately hopeful note, one that implies that these realms can be preserved through art and literature.) If that's what the real world is like, can you blame the director -- or his fanbase -- for preferring to dwell in a Wes Anderson-designed wonderland?

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Movies Without Pity

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