Oscar special: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a perfect little gem in an imperfect world
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, Anderson has created a gem that gleams brilliantly from every angle.
In the course of The Grand Budapest Hotel, its hero Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) breaks out into poetry 10 times. Each of those times, his florid, beautiful verse is interrupted by life. Everything from dinner to the sound of an alarm gets in the way of Gustave’s poetic flourish. The last time, it’s literally life that interrupts him. Gustave is hanging on to the edge of an icy precipice. There’s a killer intent upon ending his life. The ice is cracking. Certain death awaits Gustave. His response to the end that looms before him is to speak these lines:
“If this do be me end: farewell!” cried the wounded piper-boy, whilst the muskets cracked and the yeomen roared, “Hurrah!” and the ramparts fell. “Methinks me breathes me last, me fears!” said he.”
Gustave isn’t able to finish, not because he dies, but because his protégé and friend Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) dispatches the killer over the edge and saves Gustave’s life.
The poetry that Gustave so adores is distinctly old fashioned even for the 1930s, the era in which The Grand Budapest Hotel is set. It’s romantic, pretentious and filled with a kind of complicated lyricism that makes it seem vaguely ridiculous; much like the man who recites it.
Gustave H, head concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel of Zubrowka, is not a mundane creature. His job is commonplace — a concierge is an unremarkable employee in a hotel, but Gustave is anything but forgettable. He is the connoisseur of all things sophisticated and tastefully opulent, from the champagne to the heiresses.
When we are introduced to Gustave, the year is 1932 and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a grand institution. Full of frippery and yet never tawdry, it’s nothing like the flat, dull place that the hotel will become in later years, once Gustave’s era is consigned to history. Now there’s hustle and there’s bustle. There are romances and there’s champagne. There’s brilliant colour and flourish in every detail, from the colour of the uniforms (a vivid and regal purple) to the decor of each room, and Gustave oversees all of this. If there is the smallest hint of restraint or blandness, Gustave reacts violently, like when he notices that the elderly heiress Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has painted her nails a pale shade of pink and shrieks that it’s a “diabolical” colour.
Colour is about to be leached out of Zubrowka and The Grand Budapest, because a terrible war is coming, but before that, there are more immediate challenges facing Gustave. When Madame D’s will is read, her lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) reveals that he suspects that there is a second will and as per the first will, Madame D has left a priceless painting to Gustave. Madame D’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is a humourless, angular creature and he’s livid that this treasure is going to a mere hotel employee. He accuses Gustave of murdering Madame D, which lands poor Gustave in jail. What Dmitri doesn’t know, however, is that Zero and Gustave have stolen the painting.
There follows a caper that includes all the staples of an action adventure: a jailbreak, multiple murders, romance, a chase through the snow, a mysterious secret society and a cliffhanger conclusion. Except this is a Wes Anderson film, so what you get is zero adrenaline, hilarious moments and a film full of fabulousness, along with cameos by wonderful actors like Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Lea Seydoux.
Anderson is known for creating precious little worlds that are completely out of touch with anything realistic or contemporary. Beautiful as these worlds may be, they don’t always work cinematically. The film he set in India, The Darjeeling Limited, is a good example of Anderson coming across as more self-indulgent than imaginative. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, Anderson has created a gem that gleams brilliantly from every angle. The film’s design and cinematography are exquisite, so much so that every frame feels like a perfectly-executed miniature painting. One of the most delicious details in The Grand Budapest Hotel is the courtesan du chocolat, a little tower of chocolate and butter cream icing that appears at critical moments of the film. It’s made by Zero’s sweetheart, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and just the sight of it will make you crave dessert.
The costumes and make-up in The Grand Budapest Hotel are just as you expect them to be in a Wes Anderson film: a little eccentric but glorious. From Gustave’s little moustache to way Dmitri’s hair stands on his head as though he’s forever stuck his little finger into an electrical socket, the looks are a delight. Just for Tilda Swinton’s transformation into the doddery Madame D, the make-up department deserves a cupcake.
Like most of Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of pitch perfect one-liners and charming wit. The script moves at a spritely pace and while it is wordy, these are carefully-chosen words and they’re delivered beautifully by Fiennes and the rest of the cast. Gustave gets the best of the lines, and Fiennes does them justice. Forget the Oscar, to properly applaud Fiennes’s performance as Gustave, someone needs to make L’air de Panache (Gustave’s favourite perfume) and give the actor a lifetime’s supply.
Although it is, from beginning to end, entirely fictitious, there are little pinpricks of reality in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The similarity between the “ZZ” party and Nazi banners is unmistakable. Zero is an Arab immigrant in Europe and has seen terrible violence. Gustave himself seems to have no one, which seems strange given his gregarious nature and you can't help but wonder if his bisexuality has something to do with his solitariness. As in so many of Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with lonely people who fill the emptiness within them by surrounding themselves with beautiful, silly, wonderful things. In a world that is becoming increasingly monochromatic, thoughtless and cruel, Gustave does something that’s incredibly defiant: he ignores it and instead, lavishes attention upon the people he loves and the things he values. Unsurprisingly, what is precious to Gustave seems worthless or at best frivolous to the rest of the world. But thanks to Gustave, Zero, and Agatha, we know better.
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