The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 12, 2014
Ralph Fiennes in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (2014)
Ralph Fiennes in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (2014)

Walking into a preview of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a colleague wondered aloud if this was the film in which Wes Anderson would overcome his penchant for symmetry. In fact, The Grand Budapest Hotel must be the most maddeningly symmetrical movie ever produced! Frames are composed with a neatness and correctness that feels obsessive-compulsive.

The good news is that this film is sheer pleasure from start to finish. Anderson is a director who drives some viewers mad with his eccentricities but I’ve been seduced from the day I saw his debut feature, Bottle Rocket (1996). In the movies that have followed, Anderson has grown increasingly ambitious, exhibiting all the trademarks of a highly distinctive auteur.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably his masterpiece – a fast-moving fantasy based on the life of legendary concierge, Monsieur Gustave – played with amazing verve by Ralph Fiennes. For anyone who saw his blood-curdling performance in Coriolanus (2011), it may seem impossible the same actor could turn his hand to such a comic tour-de-force. Within a couple of weeks we’ll see how he fares as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman.

The story is told in flash-back, as a young writer, played by Jude Law, visits the historic hotel in the (imaginary) country of Zubrowka, and hears its history from the owner, Mr. Moustafa (F.Murray Abraham). The old man tells how he began work at the hotel as a lobby boy, under the tuteledge of M. Gustave, known for his ruthless professionalism and generous applications of the perfume, L’Air de Panache. Although M.Gustave is one of the campest creations to grace the screen since Liberace, he is a serial seducer of elderly female guests. It is, apparently, all part of the service – an act of extreme consideration, not exploitation.

The youthful version of Moustafa, known as Zero, becomes M. Gustave’s sidekick in a series of adventures involving a misplaced will, a stolen painting, a gaol break, and the rise of totalitarian forces. Tony Revolori, as Zero, is the only newcomer in a cast that reads like the invitation list to the Academy Awards night. It is a neat touch that the displaced Zero comes from a Muslim background, not a Jewish schtetl – which would have created overtones of the Holocaust. In fact, Revolori’s family come from Guatemala, another country known for extreme political violence.

The film includes cameos from Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and French stars Mathieu Amalric and Léa Seydoux. There is a slightly bigger role for Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s pastry cook sweetheart, Agatha. Jeff Goldblum is a smooth lawyer, and Willem Dafoe a crazed assassin.

Anderson says the story was “inspired” by the stories of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), but there is nothing in this writer’s work that anticipates the film’s surreal, screwball comedy. Zweig is present in the pantomime evocation of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and the device of the extended flashback. His only true novel, Beware of Pity (1939) uses this technique, as do various short stories. The description of a grand hotel may be traced back to a rediscovered novella, The Post Office Girl (1982)

One of the most popular writers in the world in the 1930s, Zweig’s career was derailed by the rise of Nazism. His stories and biographies were translated into many languages, while his autobiography, The World of Yesterday (1942) provides a magnificent portrait of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Viewers who seek out Zweig’s books after watching this film will not find the same madcap humour, but neither will they be disappointed.

As usual with Anderson’s stories, The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with passing references to the classics, including echoes of movies by Ernst Lubitsch, Max Ophüls, Rouben Mamoulian and Carol Reed.

Anderson has a remarkable ability to place humane, convincing characters in the most contrived, non-naturalistic scenarios. This ability was on full display in his previous film, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), with its earnest children and childish adults, and it’s even more pronounced in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The highly improbable M. Gustave is a kind, brave, utterly sympathetic personality.

As a brazen, non-stop comedy with a large ensemble cast, this film might be placed in the same category as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). The difference is that Kramer’s film, which recently received the accolade of a Criterion Collection release on DVD, is a shambles that strains unconvincingly after cheap laughs. By contrast, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a piece of precision clockwork, tightly plotted and scripted, but with room for slight gags and brief improvisations. It’s not the kind of comedy that induces peals of laughter. Instead, one watches in a state of trance-like delight as each intricate chapter unfolds. The entire film is like a marvellous wind-up toy. It made me remember what it felt like to be a child unwrapping presents on Christmas Day.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
USA/Germany, rated M
100 mins
Directed by Wes Anderson; screenplay by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, inspired by the books of Stefan Zweig; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, etc.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12 April, 2014.

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