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JFR 026 | The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

The formula for a Wes Anderson film is now part of the firmament of American cinema. You know what to expect: A lavishly constructed and vividly painted world full of imperfect beings, crackling dialogue and a host of familiar faces; oftentimes occupying unfamiliar or unexpected roles. It is the zany and the prosaic holding hands and revelling in the sheer fabulousness of the utterly mundane. All of the above led me to conclude I would find significant value in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and upon watching it, I certainly did. What I did not expect was the magnitude of my own satisfaction.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful film: proof absolute that for all we as a species value originality - seemingly above all - the process of refining a sure thing until it positively sparkles can be even more rewarding. The Grand Budapest Hotel takes the Anderson doctrine and uses it to deliver a veritable safari of human emotion. For starters, every frame of the film is lovingly assembled and purposeful in its execution, prompting a remarkable visual experience. As a director, Anderson possesses the ability to convey oppressive intimacy or utter detachment, simply via the placement of the camera. His trademark ‘my fellow Americans’ close up looks you square in the eyes, before a lone figure, standing amidst the pastel vastness of a dilapidated hotel lobby, evokes the controlled mastery of Stanley Kubrick. It is all sublime to behold, as Anderson uses the eponymous hotel as anchor for a typically off-kilter journey, through the eternal travails of human daftness.

We are introduced to a crumbling edifice, playing host to the lost and forgotten. Within these walls we meet Jude Law; the ‘Young Writer’ incarnation of Tom Wilkinson’s previously introduced ‘Author’. The Young Writer strikes up a rapport with the failing hotel’s proprietor, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who, over dinner, agrees to impart the lost history of the once-celebrated venue, and why he refuses to let the hotel fade away into the mists of time. Abraham delivers a beautifully subdued, subtle turn as Moustafa: a sad and melancholic older gentleman, seeking to tell a very important tale, even though it causes him considerable grief. Moustafa is the heart and soul of the story, both in the present - in the capable hands of Abraham - and the past, into which we promptly travel, meeting a freshly minted lobby boy - the very same Zero Mustafa - as played by the unheralded Tony Revolori. We are then swiftly introduced to the devoted and renowned concierge of the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave, as played by Ralph Fiennes. He is a man of the highest standards: moustachioed, impeccably presented and quite literally perfumed to the rafters. He attends dutifully to the needs of the clientele; especially his coterie of ageing, necessarily blonde admirers, who so value his ‘exceptional service’. Upon meeting Zero, Gustave takes it upon himself to train and mentor the young man in the ways of personal and professional excellence.

The relationship between Gustave and Zero is the glue that binds the narrative, and their evolving friendship, and the interplay between them, is glorious to behold. Ralph Fiennes is indisputably joyous in the role of Gustave. His comic timing, obsequious asides and deliciously applied profanity had my rib cage tripping the light fantastic with laughter, and he is the perfect foil for a story that swiftly transforms itself into a preposterously entertaining caper, that is at once a murder mystery, love affair, farce and pastiche of Luis Buñuel at his most irreverent. One of Gustave’s wealthy admirers, Madame D. (a latex-clad Tilda Swinton) is subsequently found dead. Gustave, having been bequeathed a highly valuable painting in her will, is directly implicated in her demise by her jealous, scheming and obviously murderous family members, and must go on the run with Zero, in order to unravel the mystery and clear his name. Conceit established, we thus embark on a rollercoaster of a plot, that shows us a country (and continent) on the brink of war, and includes a bevy of remarkable characters, all serving separate and/or elaborate agendas, and portrayed by a host of familiar starry-eyed faces, all of whom are clearly having the time of their lives.

Adrien Brody hams it up with gusto as Madame D.’s villainous dildo of a son, Dmitri. He is ably assisted by his psychotic manservant-come-assassin Jopling, as played with demented pleasure by a magnificent, Persian cat-hating Willem Dafoe. Jeff Goldblum plays it straight in the role of lawyer and executor of Madame D.’s estate, Deputy Kovacs, and is, as always, oodles of fun. Almost every role, be it minor or major, is played by a star of significant standing, such is the cache of a Wes Anderson ensemble, and cameos are naturally found for Anderson favourites such as Bill Murray (as M. Ivan) and Owen Wilson (as the pricelessly monikered M. Chuck). Tony Revolori is an exception to this parade of established stars. His Zero is the loyal, deadpan foil to Gustave’s poetic bombast. He carries this crucial role superbly, and is sympathetic throughout. The plot even finds time for Zero to fall in love with the bonny and intrepid Agatha, as played with earnest affection by Saoirse Ronan. Their relationship is largely delivered by proxy and experienced vicariously, yet thanks to the talents of Ronan, Revolori, Fiennes and - most crucially of all - Abraham, it is an always-hopeful dream that lends humanity and optimism to even the most insane instances of dramatic excess, and underpins the wistful tragedy at the centre of this film.

The spectre of war is always looming over the events of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it is a sobering backdrop, offering a tragic counterbalance to all the wanton frivolity. At first the war merely encroaches; an inconvenient interloper to be batted away and hopefully ignored. Alas, the threat of conflict grows steadily, eventually enveloping the hotel, before claiming those closest to our hearts. The inevitable end of the journey is heartbreakingly abrupt, yet perfect in its brutal simplicity. It renders the film bittersweet; a celebration of a bygone time, and a lamentation of the passing of just such times. The older Zero is unable to let go of the vestiges of this happier moment, yet he is not embittered: he celebrates M. Gustave as a unique man born after his time, and remains grateful to have ever known true love. From script to screen to performance, this poignant reflection is perfectly conveyed, and exquisite to witness.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a paean to a sillier and more innocent era, whilst remaining a quintessentially Wes Anderson film in tone, colour, form and delivery. When the film concluded, I wanted to smile, dwell in thought and perhaps even cry. I love the medium of film precisely because of films such as this. Since I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), I’ve approached every Wes Anderson film with the belief that nothing could surpass my appreciation for such an extraordinary (and personal) experience. I was always proven correct, until I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a charismatic, moving, hilarious and endlessly entertaining masterpiece. So, I cordially invite you to conclude reading my review and watch the film. I find it hard to believe you’ll be in any way disappointed. And if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. One can never have too much L'Air de Panache.


The first time I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was in the midst of recovering from food poisoning. The film's zany, technicolour oddness made happy bedfellows with my delirious wooziness. Writer and director Wes Anderson is certainly an original voice in cinema and his films have a wonderful quirkiness, yet I have often struggled to fully engage with his work. There have been occasions where it has seemed Anderson has such a tight grip on proceedings that he is more enamoured with his distinctive world than his audience. Modern classics such as Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) have left me scratching my head, mildly amused but ultimately bemused. So perhaps it was my addled state upon my original viewing that suggested The Grand Budapest Hotel was something of a masterpiece; a joyous celebration of the idiosyncratic imagination of Wes Anderson. I am pleased to report that it still is.

The film plays out as a wheels-within-wheels, Russian doll-style narrative, drawing us into the picture book-styled world of the eponymous 'Grand Budapest Hotel' through the narration of The Author (Tom Wilkinson) and the proprietor of the hotel (F. Murray Abraham). Liberally perfumed, suavely vulgar concierge Monsieur Gustave (an impeccable Ralph Fiennes) trains his protégé lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a breakthrough role) to “anticipate the client’s needs before the needs are needed.” Gustave’s reputation for providing blonde, wealthy older ladies with “exceptional service” results in his “regrettable and preposterous incarceration”, when he is framed for the murder of one such lady, Madame Celine Villenueve Desgoffe-und-Taxis (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton). Madame D., as she is known, has bequeathed Gustave with a valuable painting, much to the fierce annoyance of her son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody, lapping it up as a profane pantomime villain). In a manner affectionately parodied by Paddington 2 (2017), it is up to Gustave, an unlikely band of rogues, and a map which shows “great artistic promise”, to attempt to bust out of jail.

The film has dalliances with a few different genres, darting between murder mystery, cat-and-mouse farce and buddy film and, as usual, Anderson assembles a delightfully game and eclectic cast. F. Murray Abraham plays an older version of Zero, recounting his adventures with Gustave to a young writer (Jude Law, who seems to have cornered the market in playing younger incarnations of characters, in this case Tom Wilkinson’s Author). Jeff Goldblum portrays Deputy Kovacs, a family lawyer and executor of Madame D.’s will who begins to suspect something less than honest is going on. Mathieu Amalric is Serge X., the hotel chef who may be able to provide Gustave’s crucial alibi for the night of Madame D.’s death, but not if knucklehead assassin J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) has anything to do with it. Saoirse Ronan is Agatha, a baker and Zero’s fiancée, who plays a key role in enabling Gustave’s prison break and also provides a more poignant aspect to the story. Ultimately, the film revolves around Ralph Fiennes’ performance, as we witness the comic energy of a man of self-confessed distinction holding it together in a series of escalating and ever more improbable adventures.

The Grand Budapest Hotel also looks sumptuous. The images coalesce on screen as if illustrations from a bizarre novel have come to life, with Anderson’s customary attention to meticulous detail. The film is an elaborate homage to the craft of film-making, with painted backdrops and attentively created models providing the texture and feel of a bygone era, alongside vivid costumes and witty, rapid-fire dialogue. The film effortlessly glides between the absurd and the poignant; farce and pathos side-by-side. For me, it stands as Anderson’s most satisfying work, and perhaps as the film that best showcases his inimitable, fantastical and whimsical style.

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