THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Magnificent and magical. Once you check-in, you’ll never want to check-out.
A perfect blend of color and colorful characters, with just the first moments of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, you know this is the place you want to be, this is the place in which you want to not just visit but reside, these are people you want to know. Writer/Director Wes Anderson transports us through time to an age of splendor and grandeur, beauty, elegance and hilarity that, with the story’s narrative telling, takes on an even rosier tone, warmly aged by the passage of time but still vibrant and alive. The production design and creation of the hotel itself is beyond reproach. Grandeur at its most grand and most beautiful. A five star production for a five star hotel.
This is the story of Grand Budapest Hotel concierge M. Gustave and his young Lobby Boy apprentice, Zero. Gustave is perfunctory perfection and propriety - at least in public. A “dandy” in the truest sense of its old world meaning, Gustave’s entire world revolves around the Hotel and its guests. He has a pride not seen in today’s society. He embraces elegance and refinement and believes in attention to details and above all, impeccable manners and in making certain that everyone with whom he comes in contact with feels special, important, and as if they are the only person that matters to Gustave; a particularly handy skill to have when cavorting with countless beauties both young and old alike. He gives the world of the Grand Budapest Hotel a savoir faire that may or may not mirror the world outside of the pink palace.
Zero is a young immigrant who has lost his family to war. His life is, in effect, a zero. But M. Gustave sees something in the boy and takes him under his wing, determined to make him into a mini-Gustave. After all, Gustave can’t live forever. Or can he?
While learning his trade as Gustave’s devoted right-hand boy, the world around Zero and Gustave is changing. A treasured and cherished guest of the hotel (and frequent benefactress of the attentions of Gustave) is found dead in her hotel room. As comes as no surprise, with her great wealth comes great family squabbles with probate leading to hilarity, hijinks and murder(s) which only escalate with Gustave named as a beneficiary. Nazis, prison, passage of time, espionage, high speed ski slope chases a la Hitchcock, romance between Zero and the local bakery girl Agatha, and of course, the adventures of The Society of Crossed Keys all revolve around THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL with each adventure as fun and intriguing as the next.
Written and directed by Anderson, based on a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL unfolds by way of voice over narrative told by an aging writer who is now writing a book on the events of his younger self and particularly, the story of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL as was told to him decades ago by a then elder gentlemen, the owner and once the young Lobby Boy, Zero. Weaving a tapestry of tales that have an old world feel to them, filled with murder, madness and greed, Nazis, prisons and death squads, and a cast of characters to satisfy every appetite, multiple narratives intersect as the temporal lines blur and we are immersed in the adventures of M. Gustave, Zero and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
The core story and characters of Gustav and Zero touch my heart. I feel as if I know them from Old World stories told me by my own grandparents about the life of the European aristocratic and the privileged. The essence of these images which I have long held in my own head are captured to a tee, not only through Anderson's script, but his visuals and in the performances, particularly that of Ralph Fiennes. The story never falters and is utterly and completely engaging. I was as rapt as a child being read to aloud. The voice over narrative works well and thematically compliments the opening shot of a book entitled THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and a girl with hotel room keys placing them on a statue in a town square.
As the young author and adult Zero, respectively, the quiet notes of Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham capture your attention as does their perfect posture and table manners. And as much I appreciate every element of the story and performances (The Society of Cross Keys - a privileged group of elite concierges to the most exclusive hotels in Europe - is cutely funny!), the true mastery comes from Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori. As M. Gustave and Zero, these two are perfection. The comedic timing of each, individually and in tandem, is meticulous, rapier and hilarious. Fiennes is the embodiment of what one imagines when someone is described as a "dandy" but with more pride. These two just soar. And as wonderful as the timing is with dialogue, Fiennes has an air of physical comedy that is refreshing, light and captivating. The posture, the prim striding walk, the military precision. I was giddy with glee watching him.
As the young baker at the famous Mendl’s (and the apple of Zero’s eye), Saoirse Ronan is charm personified. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe are coal black comedic fodder that is delicious. As Jopling, Dafoe is the perfect evil henchman to Brody’s murderous Dmitri . Dafoe rattles your cage with his methodical darkness while Brody clad all in true deep black looks almost cartoonish, but very reminiscent of Ray Bolger as the evil Barnaby in Disney's "Babes in Toyland". Joining in the murder mystery narrative is Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Kovacs. Goldblum is his usual wordsmithy self, steeped in a world of chaos while executing perfunctory nervous calm - and that's what makes him so funny. Not to be believed in Tilda Swinton who is aged to her 90's with ostentacious over-the-top make-up and prosthetics to the point of being unrecognizable in her transformation into Dowager Madame D. The result is pure comedic fodder when playing opposite Fiennes’ Gustave.
Beyond entertaining is a montage involving The Society of Crossed Keys, the members of which are played by Anderson regulars, among them, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman.
Significant is that the story and visuals go hand-in-hand. So co-dependent and intertwined, one element fails without the other. The visuals are as geometrically precise as Gustav's impeccable manners and service. Beyond aesthetically appealing, and a tool I haven’t seen anyone pull out of the director’s toolbox before, is the lensing in different aspect ratios (proportion of width to height within a film) as they correspond to the different times in film history. At the height of the hotel’s glory in the 1930's, Anderson and legendary cinematographer Bob Yeoman shoot with what is known as “the Academy ratio”, 1.37:1, which appears more boxy and square and was the lensing norm starting in 1932. For the 1960's with the hotel in decline, they go with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for a more widescreen appearance while present day and the later scenes occurring in 1985 are lensed in the current 1.85:1. The collective result is not only an effective storytelling tool, but adds to the immersive texture and beauty of the visual palette.
Adam Stockhausen’s production design is flawless and demanding of Oscar consideration with the crown jewel being THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL itself. While the hotel is a mirror image of the essence and aesthetic of the character of M. Gustav, according to Stockhausen, “[it] grew out of the location. It’s the department store, which is called the Warenhaus now. . .It was the perfect spot and it has a structure of its own with this soaring atrium and beautiful chandeliers and stained glass ceiling.” Adding to the ambient beauty is a vaulted staircase that crisscrosses over the lobby area, a detail that plays center stage to the framing of shots. Relying on extensive research in meticulously recreating even the most minuscule detail, Stockhausen and his team, along with Anderson himself poured through historical registries for images of these grand period-perfect European hotels. Their efforts more than pay off as the hotel design alone is nothing short of stunning. Breathtaking beauty and elegance that we see transform from its gold-leaf edged pink facade to weathered warm woods with golden candlelit tones that hold the mysteries of age. Calling on Yeoman’s cinematography, the viewing experience becomes fully sensory and tactile with each design texture, each gold leaf inset on a marble column. So lux, so distinctive, it's as if you can reach out and touch them on screen.
The use of miniatures blended with digital technology adds more layers of texture and detail. As Stockhausen describes, “We went with the miniatures, which was a lot of stuff. There was the introduction to the hotel, the mountaintop observatory and the whole skiing/sledding/bobsledding sequence. It was all miniature work and it’s a much more old-fashioned way [than CGI].”
As is so key with Anderson films, color is significant and each palette tells its own story. One look and you get a sense of temporal history. Red, pink and gold are marvelously utilized. Most appreciative is that pink is one shade of pink. Reds are one shade of red. There is no tonal muting and mixing with a specific color. Again, distinctive perfection.
But hold on a minute! What's up with composer Alexandre Desplat? WOW! Never would I have imagined the scoring as being Desplat as the compositions and orchestrations use a "non-orchestral" blend of instruments that is mind-blowing and refreshingly unique and original. Lilting and light throughout, the score and individual music pieces add their own textures to the tapestry of the hotel and the story of Zero Moustafa. Signature tones are distinguishable for characters and story shifts. Lovely, lovely, lovely.
The underlying societal commentary is telling and heartbreaking. Such beauty, such dignity, such refinement and all juxtapositioned against dark times in world history and darkness in humanity. A time and place preserved now in one grand little hotel where memories and magic still live and breathe. A celebration of time spent, time lost, time remembered and time cherished in the hallowed halls of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson based on a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Tony Revolori