There are few contemporary filmmakers with a style as immediately recognizable as Wes Anderson. With a distinct visual language and a penchant for symmetry, bright colors, and unflappable whimsy, Anderson's films often pay as much care and attention to their settings as their utterly unique plots and characters. In Rushmore, the preparatory school is a vital element of Max Fischer's story, and in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the boat (“The Belafonte”) is described as being used as a home and mobile production studio. Similarly, the train in The Darjeeling Limited plays an important visual and thematic role in the story of three brothers' journey of spiritual self-discovery. This attention to detail with regard to the setting is absolutely true of Anderson's most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), in which the titular hotel is essentially the film's main character.
The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, who in addition to writing a number of popular novellas and novels, was a Jewish pacifist who fled Austria after Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1930s. Anderson stated in an interview with George Prochnik of The Telegraph that many elements from Zweig's novels are used in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and that not only the character of the Author is based loosely on him but also the character of M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes. The Grand Budapest Hotel chronicles the adventures of the fictional hotel's most revered concierge, M. Gustave and his young protégé and friend, Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori in his first feature film role). Gustave is known to court the wealthy and elderly clientele of the Grand Budapest Hotel, and when one of his paramours dies, her will sets in motion a chain of events that find Gustave and Zero in a variety of incredible situations. These adventures are relayed to the audience by the “The Author” (based on Zweig) who visited the hotel in his youth and learned of its history from the aged owner. In a way, this approach allows Anderson to take the dollhouse perspective he has utilized in his previous films to its natural conclusion, and make The Grand Budapest Hotel the engaging fairy tale that it is.
The settings of other Anderson films have sometimes been treated with a similar fantastical quality, and in Moonrise Kingdom the story is even introduced by a Narrator (played by Bob Balaban) but in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Author and his tale of the Grand Budapest act as the bookends for the narrative. By telling the story of Gustave, Zero, and the Grand Budapest Hotel through the Author and breaking the events that occur to them into chapters, The Grand Budapest Hotel takes on a romantic, mythical quality that suits Anderson’s visual style beautifully. The Author is interested first and foremost in the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, because he is intrigued by it during his visit and wonders how it came to be the “enchanting old ruin” that it is. The story of friendship, love, and loss that Mr. Moustafa relays to the Author is just one personal account of events that occurred within the walls of the hotel, but what makes it such a fascinating landmark is the knowledge that countless other equally touching and interesting stories must have taken place there as well.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a character that demands attention, and the appearance of the hotel is treated like a costume. The hotel goes through many changes throughout the film, and each change is noted visually in the dressing of the hotel. When the Grand Budapest is past its prime and dilapidated, there are few guests, its colors are dated, drab, and worn, and its furnishings are sparse and in need of repair. When the hotel is in its heyday however, it is constantly bustling with activity and its spotless bright pink decor gives it a fresh and elegant aura. Appearing like a beautiful and delicious pastry sitting atop a mountain, the glory days of the hotel are emphasized by its ornate decorations and impeccable service. Conversely, when the hotel is being used as a barracks for invading troops, its walls are draped in the black banners of the ominous “ZZ,” giving it the appearance of being in mourning. At this point even M. Gustave expresses depression at what his beloved hotel has become and dramatically declares that he will never again cross the threshold. The “health” or well-being of the hotel is an oft-discussed topic by Gustave and Zero, at least as it relates to the hotel's reputation and standards. Gustave is obsessed with maintaining a high standard of service at the hotel, and Zero likewise takes his duties as Lobby Boy very seriously. The two of them are caught up in the romantic mysticism of the hotel, much like the readers of a book or viewers of the film itself, whisked away by the glamour of the Grand Budapest, believing earnestly in its magic.
Of course, the hotel is not the only character in the film, and the others are all performed wonderfully by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s cast. Acting veteran Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori have a surprisingly natural chemistry, and Revolori in particular is a delight to watch as he demonstrates his comedic range, from deadpan to slapstick. Fiennes' Gustave may be the coiffed and well-spoken star of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Zero is clearly its heart, the character the audience identifies with and cares about the most. The story of the hotel is ultimately the story of Zero's coming of age. From his humble beginnings as a lobby boy with no family and sparse work experience, Zero proves his worth to Gustave with his loyalty and attention to detail, and in time becomes his most trusted confidant and heir. Other Wes Anderson alumni appear in supporting roles, and they shine as well. Jeff Goldblum as the verbose and scrupulous lawyer, Deputy Kovacs; Edward Norton as the soft-hearted and somewhat inept Inspector Henckels; Willem Dafoe as the hired thug for the Desgoffe-und-Taxis family, J.G. Jopling, and Jason Schwartzman as the Grand Budapest’s most recent underachieving concierge, M. Jean all give memorable performances despite the relatively minor roles their characters play. Admittedly this is not a film that boasts a diverse cast of female characters, but it is nonetheless worth mentioning that Saoirse Ronan is captivating as the plucky and fearless Agatha, and Tilda Swinton is hilarious under all her heavy makeup as the aged and wealthy Madame D. All of the characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel are grandiose in their own way, heavily stylized and defined by details (such as Gustave's obsession with the perfume L'air de Panache, Agatha's facial birthmark in the shape of Mexico, Zero's “Lobby Boy” hat and drawn-on mustache, or Jopling's permanent grimace and sets of menacing rings) which only makes them all the more visually striking and charming to watch.
In addition to being well-acted, The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most technically innovative and ambitious film to date. Anderson has used non-traditional techniques in his films before, such as animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and miniatures in many others, but never before have so many techniques come together in his films to portray a singular physical presence like that of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Utilizing varying aspect ratios to emphasize time and space in the different timelines the film explores, animated sequences, and miniatures, the tale of the Grand Budapest feels adequately grand. The cinematography is artistic and structured, yet playful, with the framing often being used for comedic effect. Anderson’s films always have very deliberate camerawork and meticulous mise-en-scène (there are multiple blogs dedicated to pointing out the symmetry of Anderson's shot composition and the color palettes he tends to use), but again, the storybook quality of the saga of the Grand Budapest Hotel gives these aesthetic choices more punch.
Everything about The Grand Budapest Hotel gives it the tone of a charming fairy tale, even as it offers a sort of alternate account of European history on the cusp of World War II. The film's fictional setting of the Republic of Zubrowka is reminiscent of the small European nations ravaged by war, and this environment creates many dangerous situations for the hotel as well as its workers. Like other Anderson films, such as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, the whimsical tale of the Grand Budapest Hotel is peppered with moments of serious dramatic weight that take the audience by surprise. Despite the cotton candy pink décor of the hotel, the cartoonishly costumed villains, and the comically violent outbursts that sometimes occur, this is not a story too cute to involve real risks, death, and dismemberment. The story of The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately a bittersweet recollection of a time long past, made up of memories of more carefree times, whether or not they are suitably weighty or accurate. These moments keep The Grand Budapest Hotel from being merely a beautiful confection (like the infamous Mendl's cakes that show up throughout the film) and make it more of a thoughtful and emotional tale about history and nostalgia.
More negative reviews of The Grand Budapest Hotel might state that all of Wes Anderson's dollhouse aesthetics and the fairy tale-like narrative makes the film a shallow and frenzied romp, that its chapters seem to go on without grounding the characters in any conflicts that matter. However, it appears to me that the objective of the film is not to offer a heavy historical allegory of small Eastern European nations between the great wars so much as to celebrate the imaginative and cathartic uses of literature. After all, the film begins and ends not with any character from the story of the Grand Budapest, nor even with the Author himself, but with an unnamed young woman, an anonymous fan who sits at a cemetery monument to pay her respects to the Author by solemnly reading his book. All the emotions stirred up by the narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel are emotions that can come from reading any book or looking back on our own individual adventures, and that theme is where the use of Wes Anderson's folksy aesthetic truly comes home to roost. The magical and deliberate style of Anderson's films are the perfect way to emphasize the value and joy of reading and being captured by a particular story. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a love letter to folk tales, to stories and story-tellers, and it perfectly captures (with visuals as well as characters and plot elements) the wonder and magic of getting caught up in something larger than life.