This one was weird for me. I missed Wes Anderson’s latest during its initial theatrical run for a couple reasons. One, it came out in early spring, a time not really known for standout prestige films. Also, I was busy busy busy finishing up my senior year at NYU. And two, I’m honestly not a huge fan of Anderson’s work. There’s always something lacking to me about his films, a style over substance issue that pervades each one in different ways. Many find his almost obsessive visual perfection charming; I usually find it exhausting.
Still, once the film started to get great notices and some year-end awards recognition, I knew I needed to check out Budapest Hotel. The fact that critics were responding so well, and that I read over and over about how the style was informed by a compelling, worthwhile plot (as opposed to some of Anderson’s other films) had me excited.
When I was home for the winter holidays, my dad and I watched the film on T.V. While I was taken with the visuals, the eclectic score by Alexandre Desplat (one of my favorite composers), and especially Ralph Fiennes’ lead performance, I once again came away somehow unimpressed by the narrative. I told my dad that it simply did not make me feel anything, a condition of a truly worthwhile movie-going experience for me (Is that a good or bad thing? I sometimes can’t tell…). Later on, in January, I sat down to watch Budapest with my boyfriend on HBO Go. As so often happens, he fell asleep.
Finally, yesterday, we sat down to watch the film again. With only two weeks until the Oscars, we always want to make sure we are as informed as possible about the nominees (Budapest received nine, a number far greater than many expected). I looked at my phone quickly and realized that the movie had, in fact, been re-released in theaters; our lazy Saturday couch date turned into a movie theater date, and I’m pleased to inform you all, I have finally become a Wes Anderson convert.
I found The Grand Budapest Hotel to be a wildly fun ride from beginning to end, perfectly choreographed and impeccably made. While the production and costume design, along with the fluid cinematography, gave the film a nonrealist, high gloss look, the screenplay was peppered with genuinely emotional, human beats that shook for me what had felt so alien and distant about Anderson’s previous work.
I’ll not go too far into what the exact narrative is, but the general gist involves the passing of a great, octogenarian socialite (Tilda Swinton in fabulous makeup), her will’s bequeathing of a priceless painting to M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the Grand Budapest Hotel’s concierge and a lover of elderly women, the theft of said painting, M. Gustave’s false imprisonment, and his subsequent rescue by his lobby boy and personal trainee, Zero (Tony Revolori).
It’s a zany farce, tied together by Anderson’s typically extravagant cast. From the murderous presence of Willem Dafoe’s bounty hunter to Dmitri, the brat child of the deceased played perfectly by Adrien Brody, to the Society of the Crossed Keys (a group of fellow concierge from around Europe) which includes Anderson vets Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, everyone finds their own way into the dense, one-liner filled screenplay.
While the film is a out-and-out hilarious comedy, it finds moments of dramatic precision as well. The onset of World War II is in full swing at the beginning, and the progress of the Nazi-like forces across the mythical country of Zubrowka (where the action is set) matches the sinister, unrelenting chase of the film. Two of the standout scenes occur when Zero and M. Gustave are investigated during their train travel by stone-faced troops. Both instances are comic high points, and also upsetting given the real-life events they suggest. And, in a truly nostalgic moment, Edward Norton shows up as a commanding officer who spent a summer at the Grand Budapest as a young boy, entertained by the very same M. Gustave; after ordering his soldiers to release the two men, he tells Zero that this particular concierge once provided company for “a very lonely little boy.” The image is evocative and tinged with sadness for a time gone by. These touches helped deepen the stakes of the film for me but never interrupted the adventurous chase.
In one other particularly stirring scene—after Zero rescues M. Gustave without any of his creature comforts in tow—the concierge reams the lobby boy with a series of insults before asking: “Why did you leave your home country in the first place?” Zero grows solemn and explains that his father was killed during a military uprising in his own mythical, Middle Eastern place of birth; the rest of his family, he says, was slaughtered during a series of mass killings. “Oh, so you’re more of a refugee than anything else, I suppose,” replies M. Gustave, teary-eyed and set in his place. The bond formed between the two throughout the film, atypical in its stilted, Wes Anderson sort of way, reaches a head finds itself cemented by the emotional, give-and-take exchange. “We are brothers,” says Zero, and in the moment I could not help but shed a few tears of my own.
There’s not much sense in continuing to describe the film; its plot is too highly structured (I loved the three-tier framing device in particular) and confusing, and the characters too numerous. I will say these last few things. It is beautiful to watch and, especially, to listen to. It is a true ensemble piece, with a standout, highly mannered and delightfully foppish Ralph Fiennes leading the way. And it is remarkably poignant, despite its staunch silliness and comedy-adventure core.
I’m not sure that I will find it in myself to appreciate the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre the way I do this film. I can say, without question, that I will hurry to the theater for his next.