Compared to 2012’s heartfelt Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lark, but what an elaborately entertaining lark it is. A murder mystery in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka, probably tucked somewhere between today’s Austria, Hungary and Slovenia, it’s essentially the tale of the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the renowned concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) in the 1930s as recalled and told by Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) half a century on, i.e., in the 1980s, to a writer (Jude Law), who in turn has set the story down in a book (The Grand Budapest Hotel) being read by a young woman in a snowy Mitteleuropean cemetery right about now. In short, what we have here are memories within memories as relayed by a possibly unreliable reader (is she imagining the writer in his later years (Tom Wilkinson) presenting the prologue and epilogue?)—and every memory claims its own exaggerated color scheme, and for that matter, its own aspect ratio as well.
Anderson sets the tone by breaking the solemnity of the almost yodel-like a cappella vocals overlaying the opening credits and first moments in that, as the young woman walks past a park bench, the three men doing the singing, mouths agape, are seen delivering their notes right at us. Which brings us immediately—you had to know it wouldn’t take long—to Anderson’s signature “dollhouse” style. Perhaps the biggest surprise for anyone who’s seen the poster is that the candied facade of the multi-storied hotel is never sliced off to reveal stacks of exposed rooms a la The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Still, head-level, wide-lensed medium shots abound and the rare camera movements, if they’re not tracking a straight line, are set at 90 degrees. Occasional long shots are for taking in the ornamental detail, while close-ups freeze on a face steadied so that it may deliver a line in the now classically Wes Andersonian deadpan mode.
None of that, though, is where the real fun comes in. The two primary strengths The Grand Budapest Hotel has going for it are, first, Fiennes’s utterly delightful performance as the non-flamboyantly gay concierge who busies himself with the hotel, Romantic poetry and elderly, rich, insecure and blond women, and second, the set design (and yes, costumes and makeup as well, but primarily the sets). Gustave is a surprisingly complex man, and I say “surprisingly” because everyone else around him, even, to an extent, young Zero, is essentially a cartoon, albeit in the best way, comic sketches straight, as they used to say, out of Central Casting.
As for the sets, the hotel, of course, is the star (though we do visit a bakery, a prison, a museum), both in its heyday, i.e., the period of the equally star-studded Grand Hotel (1932), and in the 80s, when Zubrowka has found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Given the enduring nostalgia for the rapidly disappearing monuments of Cold War-era communist architecture and design, such as Berlin’s now long-gone Palast der Republik, it’s hardly surprising that Anderson would eventually pick up on it. He, production designer Adam Stockhausen and art director Stephan O. Gessler have done more than dabble here; the blocky fonts and sleek paneling beneath a sheen of oranges and browns brought to the fading grandeur of the hotel by the communists are just as aesthetically intriguing, albeit more subtly, as the 30s-era pink pastry mit Sahne interiors.
To wrap for now with mentions of a few standout performances: Abraham, who brings just enough weight and depth to what otherwise might have been just another old man living with painful memories (yes, painful; light-footed as it is, the story does go to a few dark places, and at one point, color is drained from the palette altogether); Tilda Swinton, who goes the opposite direction and seems to be having as much fun doing so as she’s had in Bong Joon-ho’s overrated Snowpiercer; Harvey Keitel, spelling out plans for a prison break; Jeff Goldblum as a lawyer, accomplished as he is, in over his head; Willem Dafoe, biting into the role of the heavy with sharpened wolf fangs; and Saoirse Ronan as the baker’s helper (straight from Ireland, evidently) and Zero’s girlfriend. Someone must have said at one time in her life that the birthmark on her right cheek is shaped like Mexico. It says everything you need to know about the veils of memory this tale is coming through that this birthmark is, in fact, an exact and precise map of Mexico.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
First, the Zubrowka Film Commission has a tumblr. Scott Roxborough interviews Anderson for the Hollywood Reporter. Patrick Frater reports on the Berlinale press conference for Variety. And at the Playlist, Rodrigo Perez has posted trailers for six films that Anderson has claimed are influences on The Grand Budapest Hotel.
For Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun, “the film’s shaggy-dog, sort-of-whodunit yarn offers laughs and energy that make this Anderson’s most fun film since Rushmore.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang suggests that the film’s “innumerable surface pleasures might just seduce you into overlooking its sly intelligence and depth of feeling. As intricately layered as a Dobos torte and nearly as rich, this twisty tale of murder, theft, conspiracy and unlikely friendship finds its maker in an unusually ambitious and expansive mood—still arranging his characters in detail-perfect dioramas, to be sure, but with a bracing awareness of the fascism, war and decay about to encroach upon their lovingly hand-crafted world. The result is no musty nostalgia trip but rather a vibrant and imaginative evocation of a bygone era, with a brilliant lead performance from Ralph Fiennes that lends Anderson’s latest exercise in artifice a genuine soul.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “As the critic Andrew Sarris once wrote of Ernst Lubitsch, the all-time master of urbane, naughty screen comedy, ‘For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable.’ Anderson adopts a very similar view here. While hardly closing his eyes to—and, in fact, embracing — the mischief, vulgarity and even criminality in which people of all stripes can indulge, he nonetheless takes to heart a time and place where a hierarchy of taste, culture, speech and overall refinement was paramount (and, indeed, Paramount, in Lubitsch’s case). But while the society may be high, the comedy is low, the talk vulgar.”
“Wes Anderson’s beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable The Grand Budapest Hotel sees the director deliver his best film,” finds Screen‘s Mark Adams.
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “While it notably draws from preexisting material—namely, the writings of Viennese intellectual Stefan Zweig, though Anderson has also tipped his hat to various other wartime literature—one of America’s most distinguished modern auteurs has spun his clutter of reference points into a collage-like fantasy adventure so clearly fused with the rest of his oeuvre that it belongs to the writer-director more than anyone else…. While it has many familiar ingredients—from the atmosphere to the ensemble of Anderson regulars in nearly every role—in its allegiance to Anderson’s vision, everything about The Grand Budapest Hotel is a welcome dose of originality.”
“If nothing else (and there is quite a lot else) the film is at times perhaps the apotheosis of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, a glorious, mischievous sequence of pictorialist plays taking place in a world so perfectly contained it might as well be in a snowglobe,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “But as off-kilter affecting as we found its nostalgia for a world of charm and dash that really only ever existed in the movies, and as terrific as almost all of the performances are, as a whole package it fell just slightly short of the promise of its parts.”
“Why,” wonders Guy Lodge at In Contention, “am I simultaneously so tickled and moved by The Grand Budapest Hotel? It’s a film so choux-pastry-light as to feature a scene where two characters are literally immersed in pastry boxes, so OCD in its detailing that the cast credits list an actors represented only into oil-painting form. But in relocating his fixed sensibility to an obsolete European neverwhere, and making the eponymous institution as storied and tragic a subject as any of its residents, Anderson has hit on the ideal narrative context for his restless romanticism and production design fetish: Beneath its jaunty crime-caper surface lies a story implicitly about beauty and ornamentation, and the ways in which we’ve let it go.”
For David Ehrlich, writing at Badass Digest, “if this is the most Wes Anderson film he’s made yet, a large part of what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel so much fun is that—at the same time—none of his previous films have been so transparently indebted to other filmmakers. Cute references abound (the full name of Swinton’s character is Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, a.k.a ‘Madame D,’ a loud nod to Max Ophüls), while brilliant matte paintings recall The Archers and a third act chase sequence feels like a Bond movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch. But Anderson pushes himself too hard to use his heroes as a crutch. What lazy viewers might see as more of the same, others will recognize as Anderson testing the limits of his control, the precision of his filmmaking increasing in tandem with the frenzied pace of his plot.”
The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey spots a possible Kubrick reference as well. At any rate, “Fiennes is such an unexpected star in an Anderson film, as well as an underrated comic actor in general, that it redoubles the joy of what he’s doing. Gustave’s prissy hauteur, his incongruous bursts of swearing, his ridiculous fussiness about comportment, clothing, food and so on—these are all notes Fiennes tosses off with supreme skill and timing, while building a winningly complete portrait of an entitled, yet fundamentally decent, soul.”
“Even though from the outset The Grand Budapest Hotel announces itself as a jolly trifle, its cumulative power catches you daydreaming,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “Anderson has this innate ability to shoot a moment through with intense sadness with a repetition, a realization or a tonal remove.”
But for TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde, it’s “course after course of desserts: marzipans, macarons, crème brûleé, tiramisu and profiteroles, presented with a flourish and served so promptly that you can barely catch your breath between treats. It’s not until an hour or two has passed that you realize, for all the wonderful flavors and beautiful plates, that you haven’t really eaten anything.”
In the Independent, Francesca Steele suggests that The Grand Budapest Hotel “might well be the director’s greatest crowd-pleaser yet.”
For Anne Thompson, “Anderson’s illusion is visually sublime—but the narrative he’s constructed is wafer thin.”
Updates, 2/21: “It is a Grand Old Allegory for Good Old Europe before that Menace we all know-too-well, that of the jackboots, grayness, and death squads in this delicate and once-hopeful period between the two Wars,” writes Yaron Dahan. “It is an account proper and polite, of delicacy and charm like a three layered puff-pastry from Mendl’s prominent pâtisserie, giving Voice and Image not to the twin disastrous Ideologies looming over European History like shadows of giants, but rather to their Proud and Optimistic Refusal, although sadly enough not of their Overcoming. It is a Europe celebrated in a way that Never-Could-Be in homage to one of its finest authors destroyed by the Continent That Was—despite his great Art and Talent and for no other reason than Being Who He Is.”
Also in the Notebook, Adam Cook: “In an oeuvre of outwardly sad characters, Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave H. is distinguished. He’s the most selfish, hard to like, and insecure of any of Anderson’s protagonists, presented without the sentimentalizing that vindicated Royal Tenenbaum. A victim of his own humanity, his tragedy is complexly nuanced: Gustave is left to be just so, flawed, and movingly so.”
“It’s in Fiennes’s performance as M. Gustave, his Andersonian [affectlessness] ruptured by real pathos and frustration, that The Grand Budapest grounds itself,” agrees John Semley at the House Next Door. And it’s “either his best film or his best film since his last film.”
The Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver: “Zweig specialized in novellas—Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fear, The Royal Game—normally designed to illuminate some plangent melodrama in interwar Vienna. Without being a direct adaptation of anything specific, The Grand Budapest Hotel distills many of the story’s elements. Anderson has concocted what is essentially a Ruritanian picaresque, stuffed full of bizarre character studies, and fashioned with his, by now familiar, handcrafted attention to detail…. In some hands, this convoluted, labyrinthine narrative would end up a sprawling mess, but such is Anderson’s storytelling discipline—informed and sustained by the precision of the cinematography and set design—that it never gets away from him.”
“Though I have tried many times over the years to like, or even just appreciate, Anderson’s films, with the exception of the work-of-genius Fantastic Mr. Fox, they elude me every time,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “The Grand Budapest Hotel strikes me as even less of a good thing, although, as its title suggests, it is Anderson’s most elaborate, lavish-looking picture yet.”
For James Rocchi, writing at Cinephiled, “it’s easy to see that it’s the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever made. Regrettably, that’s very different from stating that it’s enjoyable, or engaging, or any good as anything other than a highlight reel of the writer-director’s tics, quirks and affectations…. Grand Budapest is distressing if only because it is one of those films which proves that its filmmaker can no longer discern a sumptuous visual groove from an over-familiar, over-designed rut.”
But at Twitch, Ben Croll writes, “I don’t know if this is the film Wes Anderson has been building towards, or if it’s simply an example of the planets aligning in just the right way, but there is something The Grand Budapest Hotel that feels valedictory.”
Robbie Collin interviews Anderson for the Telegraph.
Update, 2/23: Tom Lamont interviews Anderson for the Observer.
Updates, 2/25: For New York‘s David Edelstein, The Grand Budapest Hotel is “an exquisitely calibrated, deadpan-comic miniature that expands in the mind and becomes richer and more tragic.”
In the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard offers a quick primer on Zweig.
Updates, 2/27: “As played with a melancholy rakishness by the handsomer-than-ever Fiennes, M. Gustave is one of Anderson’s more memorable creations,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “but he’s stranded in a movie that, for all its gorgeous frills and furbelows…, never seemed to me to be quite sure what it was about…. I’d like to think of this as Anderson dancing on the brink of the abyss, but it still feels like he’s leaving a healthy margin between himself and the edge.”
“If The Royal Tenenbaums tends to surprise viewers on rewatchings with its clouded-over depressive undertone, so might The Grand Hotel Budapest with its unmistakable, unexpected reckoning with the collision between culture and brutality,” writes Nicolas Rapold at the L. “It’s a 20th-century fairy tale, complete with monsters, familiar in its cross-country farce yet melancholic in its imprint.”
Scott Raab talks with Jeff Goldblum for Esquire.
Update, 3/1: “Grand Budapest Hotel presents a whole network of people trying vainly to capture the ghosts of the past, communicating a telescoped nostalgia for worlds vanished before one was able to experience them,” writes Jesse Cataldo at Slant. “The sum effect is one of great sadness, but the formal precision also doubles as a form of optimism, facilitating the creation of clockwork realities which, if not approaching or precluding our own, can at least, in the words of one character here, ‘sustain the illusion with marvelous grace.'”
Update, 3/3: Alex Needham talks with Adrian Brody for the Guardian.
Updates, 3/29: “All in all,” writes David Bordwell, “I have to salute an American filmmaker who thinks about his images carefully and has incited sensitive viewers to notice them. I think we should go further, though. We can ask: How does Anderson, staying loyal to this tradition, vary the look of the shots? And how does he cut them together?”
Another piece I’d highly recommend is Richard Brody‘s entry on Zweig, inspired in part by a reading of George Prochnik’s forthcoming book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. And he points us to Prochnik‘s interview with Anderson for the Telegraph. Prochnik: “I thought your film did a beautiful job of transposing Stefan Zweig’s actual life into the dream life of his stories, and the stories into the fabric of his actual life. You showed how his own experiences had a fairy-tale dimension, confectionary and black by turns.”
Meantime, more reviews: Melissa Anderson (Artforum), Nigel Andrews (Financial Times), Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Josef Braun, Richard Brody (New Yorker), Dave Calhoun (Time Out, 4/5), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B+), Mark Keizer (Alt Film Guide), Philip Kemp (Sight & Sound), Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert.com, 4/4), Mark Kermode (Observer, 4/5), Yasmeen Khan (Quietus), Max Nelson (Los Angeles Review of Books), Kevin Nguyen (Paris Review), Amy Nicholson (Voice), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Anna Peele (Esquire), Nick Pinkerton (Reverse Shot), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nicolas Rapold (L), Tim Robey (Telegraph, 5/5), Jonathan Romney (Film Comment), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out, 5/5), A.O. Scott (New York Times), Jordan M. Smith (Ioncinema, 4/5), John Swansburg (Slate), Scott Tobias (Dissolve, 4.5/5) and David Thomson (New Republic).
More interviews with Anderson: Dave Calhoun (Time Out), David Jenkins (Little White Lies), Mark Olsen (Los Angeles Times), R. Kurt Osenlund (Slant), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist), Nigel M. Smith (Indiewire, where he also talks with Willem Dafoe) and Marlow Stern (Daily Beast). And Danny Miller talks with Jeff Goldblum for Cinephiled, while R. Kurt Osenlund interviews Bill Murray for Esquire and