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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's romp through Old Europe

Mar. 19, 2014
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Whether merely quirky or strangely compelling, Wes Anderson’s films are among the most distinctive artifacts to emerge from the environs of Hollywood in recent years. Anderson delights in creating new worlds from old material, reshaping the familiar or the half-forgotten in the funhouse mirrors of his imagination. In The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), J.D. Salinger’s Glass family was the source for melancholy deadpan comedy; in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), it was Jacques Cousteau. For Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the obvious sources are the aristocratic European comedies of 1930s director Ernst Lubitsch, but the bittersweet undertone derives from Viennese essayist Stefan Zweig, a thorny writer suddenly all the rage again who represents mordant nostalgia for the lost civilization of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before world wars, Bolshevism and Nazism ruined the party.

The setting is a made-up Ruritania called Zubrowka. The story is told by that nation’s leading author (already dead when the film begins) as a flashback of his encounter with a mysterious old gentleman in a rundown grand hotel whose better days were decades past. The tale is framed by the bleakness of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, but the Old World civilization Zweig loved was already just a veneer by the 1930s when the heart of the story unfolds.

Barely audible at first are the rumblings of war and revolution in the hotel’s majestic lobby, where armies of attendants wait on guests at the command of the concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is outwardly unflappable, anticipating the needs of his guests and keeping their secrets, which often include affairs with him behind the double doors of the regal suites. When one of his favorite lovers dies, his beloved aged Dowager Countess (Tilda Swinton), The Grand Budapest Hotel turns into a caper and a romp over her will, a priceless painting and a murder investigation. Accompanying Gustave through most of the adventure is his sad-eyed, faithful “lobby boy,” the refugee Zero Mustapha (Tony Revolori).

The tale’s fantasy dimension is highlighted in most every scene by art direction and costuming. Many of the landscapes are painted backdrops with moving figures, as in a ’30s film, and some of the outdoor action, especially a chase down a ski hill, looks accomplished with models. In colors richer than life, the hotel staff is clad in purple and the elevators are painted Chinese firehouse red.

On the surface, the characters are bracketed by bold quotation marks; even the black-clad fascist son of the late Countess (Jude Law) and his bloodthirsty henchman (Willem Dafoe) are played for farce. But there are subtle counterpoints from a pair of characters representing the rule of law crumbling under pressure of brute force, the attorney (Jeff Goldblum) and police chief (Edward Norton). A fragile flower in the coming storm, love blossoms between Zero and the bakery girl who makes the hotel’s lavish treats (Saoirse Ronan). Pathos emerges from the briefly stated back story of Zero, one refugee among millions displaced by the genocidal upheavals of the Near East.

Anderson plays for comedy and achieves a measure of mirth from the Rube Goldberg construction of the plot and the imaginary Middle Europe from between the world wars. And yet, as in his best films, the farce casts a shadow of sadness and loss.


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