If there’s one thing that hits me right in the film-loving part of my heart (which is pretty much the whole thing), it’s when a filmmaker is able to change and evolve without really going against their nature or sensibilities. Quentin Tarantino was able to do this with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained; by making period pieces, he’s found a new and fresh outlet for his unique brand of storytelling. A very similar thing has happened with Wes Anderson; slowly throughout his career he’s been drifting toward making quirky adventure films instead of the quirky stayed dramedies he’d made initially. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012) were him playing with genre and form and technique in a way he hadn’t before. His newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, does this even more, and it might be my favorite of the bunch.
Hearkening back to the kind of upper-crust adventure films that were plentiful in between WWI and WWII, like the work of Carol Reed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a movie about nostalgia for a time when society (in Europe especially) was polite and opulent and things were, like the title suggests, Grand. It’s a movie that at once feels like it belongs in a bygone age and yet could never have existed any time except now. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen in recent years that makes me wish I could actually live inside it, the world is so rich and vibrant and inviting, despite all the murder and war and whatnot.
The film takes place in the fictional European Republic of Zabrowka, a once-great alpine nation ravaged by war and poverty. A girl in the present is reading a book of the same title as the film, written by an unnamed author. In the pages of the book we see its author (Tom Wilkinson) tell us about 1968 when he (played as a young man by Jude Law) visited the Grand Budapest Hotel, when it was rundown and a bit, but happened to get to meet Mr. Moustapha (F. Murray Abraham) who regales the author with a story of how he came to own the hotel after starting as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) in the 1930s working under the tutelage of the hotel’s former revered concierge, Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Narrative within a narrative within a narrative. And each time we go into a different time period, we also go into a different aspect ratio of the film. A very lovely touch.
The main narrative Mr. Moustapha tells concerns Gustave H. and his relationship with the many elderly rich women who come to the hotel, specifically Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who dies mysteriously and leaves to Gustave an invaluable painting called “Boy with Apple,” much to the chagrin of the woman’s jackbooted son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) and his hired muscle Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Together, Gustave and Zero embark on an amazing caper taking them all over the country, up and down mountains, and in and out of the impending fictional war (which is meant to be WWII). Murder and intrigue also ensue.
There’s no downplaying just how amazingly fun this movie is. The word “madcap” comes to mind and it’s immensely apt. Everything just moves so fast and there are so many characters who all play their little part in the greater narrative. I never felt like there were too many characters, though, even though it did feel a bit like it was cameo after cameo of impressive and well-known actors. The story is really the burgeoning friendship/mentorship between Zero and Gustave and then secondarily the romance between Zero and pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). All three actors do such a brilliant job. Fiennes is especially grand as the fastidious and endlessly charming Gustave. The other characters, while fantastic and hilarious that they’re played by such famous people, are in support of that. Which is not to say Brody, Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and literally everyone else doesn’t do a great job, because they do.
One of the other things Anderson does to make the film feel of a time long gone is to use miniatures and models for most of the special effects. It’s in keeping with his penchant for making movies feel like stageplays, but also makes the fictional world feel simultaneously like a fairy tale and more realistic. The Hotel itself is a very elaborate and intricate model (not unlike this one made of LEGO someone did) and the trains and trams in the film are equally impressive.
As if I need to say it again, The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily one of my favorite movies of the year so far, and one of my favorite Wes Anderson films to date, if not the number one. It’s fun, funny, inventive, and reminds me of classic European cinema. Really, what else could anyone want?
The Blu-ray has a small smattering of extras, including a 4 minute deal with Bill Murray giving us a tour of the filming location/company barracks, 18 minutes of EPK materials about the making of the film, and three in-character vignettes about the Republic of Zubrowka, about how to make the pastries in Mendl’s Bakery, and the mystery of the Society of the Crossed Keys. Enjoyable but light for sure. One can expect a much more in-depth Blu-ray release when the film inevitably finds its way to Criterion, the way all of Anderson’s movies up to Mr. Fox have so far. I love this movie and think you ought to buy it to watch a million times, but a rental would do you just fine too if you want to hold out for the better extras.