Every once in a while I run across a film that I don’t understand – and frankly, don’t even see the point of – yet still find immensely enjoyable. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of those films.
Set somewhere in a fictionalized European nation called the Republic of Zubrowka circa 1932, The Grand Budapest Hotel recounts the story of Zero, a young orphan from a war-torn country who lands a job as a bell hop in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It flows something like a storybook, with plenty of bright colors, a flair for the theatrical, moments of cartoonish action, and a hotel that looks like a cake. It starts in the present day, with a writer at his desk bluntly breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience about the story he is about to recount, which was told to him back during a stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel by the owner himself. Safely buried and filtered under two narrators, the tragic rags-to-riches tale begins.
At the center of said tale is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s concierge and epitome of an English gentleman. His diction is impeccable and sophisticated, his love for poetry delightful and spontaneous, and his alacrity for the task of hotel management venerable and disciplined. But though having all the outward marks of a gentleman his honor suffers at several points. Namely, he fornicates shamelessly with a certain category of clientele: old, wealthy, lonely, desperate blonde women (yes, for some reason, notes the narrator curiously, they were always blonde). It is this vice that lands him in trouble and so provides the film’s inciting incident. When one of his mistresses passes away, she leaves behind a massive inheritance. The most valuable of all her possessions, a painting of unsurpassed beauty called “Boy with Apple,” she bequeaths in a last-minute will to M. Gustave. Her surviving family, of course, is furious and prepared to challenge the legitimacy of the will, so he secretly takes the painting with him after paying his respects and before all the legalities can be worked out.
The subsequent adventures involve a prison escape, running from a brass-knuckled hit man (played by a perfectly typecast Willem Dafoe) and a ski chase down a hill from a monastery called Our Holy Father of the Sudelten Waltz. They all culminate in a generally happy ending in the short term. (SPOILERS) That is, at the end of the film’s retelling. Zero gets married to a girl from the bakery and M. Gustave gets the inheritance and the Grand Budapest. But shortly after Zero notes that his wife died from a now easily treatable disease, and his beloved friend and mentor, M. Gustave, soon passed away as well, leaving everything to him to enjoy in loneliness and decay.
It leaves the audience with a tension that, upon reflection, I could only laugh at. How are you supposed to feel after that?
If there is anything redemptive to be found in The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is Anderson’s creative world-building and artistic flair. He manages to construct an entire universe by reinventing 1930s Europe so that it is ahistorical – reminiscent of our world in style and ethnic dynamic yet entirely different in particulars, full of European-sounding names and Gestapo-like soldiers. The makeover works because we understand it and can make sense of the characters while encountering something entirely fresh. And while the film may not have the emotional weight to tug on our heartstrings, it has heart in the sense that the film as a whole – as a work of art – is a labor of love, carefully (if irreverently) crafted into something quite impressive.
I’m still not sure exactly what this “something” is, but whatever it is one can’t contest that The Grand Budapest Hotel is wicked, wicked smart. Many of the deadpan jokes drop after a series of quick, accented, brilliantly crafted lines (I would watch it again for this very reason). Others humorous moments come in bursts of unexpected profanity, violence, and the taboo. Combined, these form an avant-garde color of comedy that appeals to both the sophisticated and edgy impulses of a well-versed filmgoer. The cinematography further enhances this deadpan humor with deadpan shots – straightforward and blunt, with just the right pacing to perfectly land every punch line.
Even without catching every clever moment, I at least walked out of The Grand Budapest Hotel with the satisfying sense that I had seen something with some original thought behind it, which is more than we can say about a lot of movies these days. And as for the storybook absurdity, well, it adds to the charm. Memory has a knack for playing tricks on us, after all, and life is more fun when embellished by a little theatrical imagination.