Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) combines so many genre elements from drama to comedy to murder mystery to prison escape film it’s amazing that it doesn’t fall apart at some point. Instead it seems to thrive on how many themes it can represent.
The star of the story undoubtedly is Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. He very much embodies the smooth, congenial and self-obsessed hotel concierge and captivates in every scene he is in. With Mr. Fiennes leading the action, all the other Anderson familiar crew follow suit, including Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman along with newcomers F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel and Tony Revolori. It’s an impressive cast to be sure and they are almost all given adequate screen time and story presence.
What does present somewhat of an issue however is tone. The audience will be laughing at one moment, depressed at another and disgusted at another (a certain scene involving four fingers). Sometimes these contradict each other and are hard to digest emotionally.
Wes Anderson has also maintained a very unique and rigid visual style and if you can not stand it (as I know some people can not), they would be best to avoid this film as it continues the pans, center framing and pastel-like visual palette. If you are a fan of his work, this fits right into his cannon as one of his greatest stories, not quite as strong as Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but still offering profound lessons on hospitality in the modern world, the treatment of all social classes and a reflection on a time period of war that destroyed so much for so many.
The marketing behind the film is slightly misleading. I went to the movie after seeing the trailer believing this to be a murder mystery with a wrongly accused man. What the film is actually about are the class differences between the elite who attempt to control everything and the lower class that is just trying to survive.
M. Gustave is revered by the elite for his manners and hospitality. He seems to control them and in a way views himself as one of them, sleeping with all of the old ladies and believing in a just world of politeness. When one of the old ladies he had been schmoozing leaves a rare, priceless painting to him after her death, the remaining elite of her family, epitomized by Dmitri played by Adrien Brody, go berserk and refuse to stop at anything to discredit and eliminate the perceived lesser individual. Through all of this, M. Gustave is then put in jail for her murder while the henchman Jopling, played by Willem Dafoe, goes on a killing rampage to make sure that the missing painting is found and all those who stand before the family are eliminated.
The trials that M. Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero, have to endure epitomize the plight of the lower class as the elite attempt to force their way on the masses. The actions of the antagonists, Dmitri and Jopling, drive the action. The film frames them as totally unsympathetic, further pushing the audience towards M. Gustave and Zero if they weren’t already likable enough. Zero in particular is presented as a rather shy, naïve and tepid boy, completely overwhelmed by the situation around him while M. Gustave is so charismatic and genial. What the film lacks in complex characters however it makes up for in a constantly moving plot, never allowing the audience to sit complacent for too long as it switches from murder mystery to prison escape to ski chase to hotel shoot out. So much happens so quickly, and it is all very fun to watch.
Anderson’s sets are always very lavish in a homespun kind of way, and this film is no exception. With the characters nearly always in the center of the frame, this allows the filmmakers to design elaborate vignettes around them, highlighting certain aspects of the story (such as Dmitir’s evil home symbolized as a throne with dark hanging objects and low light or Gustave’s hotel lobby as his sanctuary with bright chandeliers). The color palette is also very interesting in the warm hues of the Grand Budapest Hotel, making it very inviting, the dullness of prison, symbolizing lifelessness and the soft white tint of the snow, characteristic of a struggle to see through as Zero and Gustave cross paths with Jopling. If you pay close attention, you will also notice the aspect ratio of the film change several times depending on what time period we are in. This creates several distinct feelings for each era.
Perhaps the most fun aspect that tickles the brain is just how the story is told. We start with a young girl reading a book that cuts to an author writing a book that cuts to a fictional author finding a man who becomes the narrator to another man’s story. In a way then, this film is about a girl reading a book by an author writing about an author who meets an old man who tells us about a hotel concierge. We are then peering through a narrative that has gone through many voices and has become a story for the masses, symbolizing The Grand Budapest Hotel’s message of common bond between man beyond social class.