The Grand Budapest Hotel would not be my first choice when introducing somebody to Wes Anderson, but when it comes to the man’s movies there really isn’t a smooth transition into them. His style being what it is, you just have to sit back and acclimate until you realize you are watching films of such precision and micromanagement you wonder if Anderson doesn’t have twenty or thirty clones of himself placing each actor into each position in every frame of the film. Much like Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film made with precision, character, and an eye for detail that staggers upon first impression.
Now let’s be honest, most average movie goers probably would not give three shits for The Grand Budapest Hotel. For starters it takes place in a fictional European country, the Republic of Zubrowka a central European power and that right there is enough to make most people stop reading and Google the word Boobs. You’re doing it right now aren’t you? Hello? Are you there? Well I’ll keep going just to spite you. Along with the location of the main story line is frame narrative. To those who don’t know a frame narrative is a story within a story. You’re familiar with the structure even if you haven’t heard the term. A standard literary technique, frame narratives include such examples as The Odyssey, Frankenstein, The Princess Bride, Inception, and The Hobbit movies which I have a problem with but to be fair there’s probably whole dissertations about what was wrong with The Hobbit films, so we won’t go into that. The point is we’re used to stories within stories, especially since The Odyssey is not only the first narrative to incorporate such a style; it’s the foundational text for most of Western civilization.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story within a story within a story within a story. The larger central plot is actually very simple, a teenage girl enters a graveyard, places a key on “The Author’s” tombstone, and begins to read one of his books. This is the first and central story.
The second story is of “the author.” He is an old man reading a soliloquy about the nature of being a writer while his grandson shoots him with a pellet gun. I hate just giving quotes to supplement summary, but in this case it’s a beautiful moment in the film. Then again I’m a writer so I’m always fascinated by passages and films involving or discussing writing:
Author: It is an extremely common mistake. People think the writer’s imagination is always at work, that he’s constantly inventing an endless supply of incidents and episodes; that he simply dreams up his stories out of thin air. In point of fact, the opposite is true. Once the public knows you’re a writer, they bring the characters and events to you. And as long as you maintain your ability to look, and to carefully listen, these stories will continue to…
Author’s Grandson: [shooting at him with a pellet gun]
Author: Stop it! Stop it! Don’t! Don’t do it!… Uh, will continue to seek you out, uh, over your lifetime. To him, who has often told the tales of others, many tales will be told.
Author’s Grandson: Sorry.
Author: It’s all right. The incidents that follow were described to me exactly as I present them here, and in a wholly unexpected way.
The following story is suddenly there, much like the previous passage and the “author” is now a young man staying at a hotel named The Grand Budapest. We’re introduced to the structure and the “author” notes how decrept the structure is before the audience is introduced to yet another character known as Mr. Moustafa, the owner of the hotel. His character is described as odd, whenever he visits he stays in a servants quarter and the “author” eventually stumbles upon the man in the Arabian baths. They have dinner and Mr. Moustafa plunges the audience into yet another story which is the central plot focus of the entire movie.
Stop. Take a breath.
Now the main story follows the figure of Gustave H., the head concierge at The Grand Budapest at the height of it’s glory. Played by Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort to the members of my generation) the man is not only a brilliant concierge in the way he is able to take care of people’s wants and needs, the man is a drama queen that writes poetry, recites it in the morning staff meetings, baths in cologne, and seduces the elderly women that stay at the hotel leading up to the best line in the film.
Gustave: [Of Mme. Celine] She was dynamite in the sack, by the way.
Zero: …She was 84, Monsieur Gustave
Gustave: Mmm, I’ve had older. When you’re young, it’s all filet steak, but as the years go by, you have to move on to the cheap cuts. Which is fine with me, because I like those. More flavorful, or so they say.
Whatever you say of Anderson, besides the fact he provided masturbatory aids to hipsters over the course of his long career, the man is a gifted writer in the fact that he can create a strong line of dialogue that is both hysterical and philosophically profound.
Gustave begins the story serenading Mme. Celine and finds himself the beneficiary in her will much to the anger of her son Dmitri who is quite possibly the most demented Nazi who isn’t Nazi that you will see until Jopling, William Dafoe looking ghoulish as ever, chops off four of the lawyers fingers in an art museum. The plot then moves to Gustave being imprisoned for killing Mme. Celine, escaping prison, and attempting to prove his innocence.
Now at this point an average movie goer speaks up and argues, this film sounds pretentious and boring. You have to be a PhD, or worse, a hipster to even appreciate it. This just ain’t the case man. Wes Anderson is a specific type of movie maker, one who allows his style to dominate the narration of a story but never at the expense of it. There are a few directors like this that immediately spring to mind: Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Sophia Copola, Francis Ford Copola, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick. If you watch the films of these directors you’ll note that each of them has a style so unique that you only have to watch around five minutes of film before you’re able to identify the director. This is either due to the way a director frames shots, the dialogue they may favor, the subject material, or even just something as simple as lighting. Let me just say then, there is no film in existence that is made anything like a Wes Anderson film, and it’s useless trying to describe it to you, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself and either be amazed at the level of execution, or mystified that anyone would think this assemblage of paintings could be misconstrued as entertainment.
Just remember what Luke Goebel said to me after spoiling the ending of a short story by J.D. Salinger:
“You don’t read a story to figure out what happens, you read a story to figure out how its told!”
The powerful features of this film, the structure that makes watching this movie worth your time, are found in the retelling of a man’s a story. Gustave is a father to the second protagonist, a young man named Zero who has lost his entire family to the war that is brewing in Europe. Gustave takes Zero under his wing and shows him what it means to be a Lobby Boy, demonstrating the pathos and philosophical merit of such a post.
Gustave: Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately a song to the hope that in the midst of chaos and hate and malice, that there is still an effort to demonstrate some kindness or else the culture than human beings celebrate is truly nothing but a farce we sell ourselves is a lie. Mr. Moustafa is asked why he continues to run the Hotel despite the fact that it is clearly falling apart and will never be as great as it once was. His honest answer is because he loved his young wife Agatha, a baker’s apprentice cursed with a scar the shape of Mexico on her left cheek. The love story is not the central story arc, but it is important to understanding Zero and what motivates him.
Dear reader I can only do much to encourage you to watch this strange and wonderful film. Ralph Fiennes gives an amazing performance as a father figure to Zero. I think that’s what sold it to me. The lessons that men teach young boys mean everything, because they hold such power in those boys minds. We look to our fathers to instruct us, to point us to what is right and what is wrong. We expect our fathers to teach us what it means to be good men. Zero’s loses his parents to the war and Gustave assumes it for himself to teach the boy what it means to be a good man and a good lobby boy. Mr. Moustafa says it best:
Mr. Moustafa: There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?
By the end of the film I was in tears. It’s such a beautiful film. It ends with a young girl reading a book in a graveyard and we’re left to wonder at the men and women we experienced and decide whether or not they were worth our time. I believe they were.
If this review hasn’t been enough to convince you to see the film, perhaps you would at least like to know that Harvey Keitel is in the movie and plays a jail escapee or else what is quite possibly the scariest Oz cosplay I have ever seen in my entire life.