THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Four Stars)
U.S.-British-German: Wes Anderson, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
I. The Great Zubrowkan Novel
Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel is — What’s the word I’m looking for? Fantastic? Piquant? Nabokovian? Wes-Andersonish? Scrumptious? Playful?
Yes that’s it: Playful. Not the sexiest adjective, I realize. Ah, well… But that’s what the picture is: It’s playful to a fault — and Nabokovian and scrumptious and all the rest too. Done in Anderson’s unmistakable style, full of toy-like miniatures, painted-looking backdrops, sprightly camera moves, quick zooms, and high-style writing and acting, it’s a deliciously wayward and intricately amusing show — a delightful example of what can happen when a gifted movie artist isn’t afraid to try something eccentric or out of the way. Working within a rigorously stylized format, but with plenty of oddball kinks, twists and gags, Anderson and his fellow moviemakers and actors seem to be having a ball. They toss around ideas and visions and crazy little diversions that they‘re drawing from all kinds of classic books and movies and paintings and musical pieces — and when the film is really working, which is most of the time, their art and artistry seems to fully connect with their imaginations and with us, and with the images and thoughts tumbling around in their heads.
The show, set in a fictitious world drawn from our own, is about theatricality — about play. And it’s full — to the brim — with visions of those odd little wonderlands we can create for ourselves, when life begins to seem too dark and borderline awful to bear without them. So, we can invent a whole fantastical other-world — especially if we’re someone like Wes Anderson, the maker of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom, some of which are films people like a lot, and some of which irritate the bejeezus out of them (including, at times, me), but none of which are any less than personal statements by a real filmmaker — dreams in full flight. (Notice I didn‘t call them “quirky.”).
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the name of the movie, of course. But it’s also the title of a fictitious book we see being opened, in the present, in this film‘s opening sequence. A classic of the literature of an obscure (and fictitious) Eastern European country Zubrowka, it was written by a celebrated (but nameless) fictitious author, played by Tom Wilkinson, who lives there — in a place that seems to be part Czech, part Hungarian, and part Ruritania before the revolution. In 1985, this great author, in his study, tells us the incredible story that became his novel: told to him on a memorable night long ago (when he was Jude Law) in 1968 at Zubrowka’s storied but now deteriorating and nearly empty Grand Budapest Hotel — where the writer met the hotel’s mysterious owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).
Mr. Moustafa, a man of elegant demeanor, rare charm and impeccable manners, introduced himself to the author (as a literary fan) in the hotel baths, invited him to dinner, and then, over fine drinks and pretty little pink-and-green pastries, in the vast, nearly empty Grand Budapest dining room, he tells the writer and us the incredible, unbelievable, but (he insists) true story of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Budapest in its prime, and his own elegant, impeccable mentor. All this took place back in 1932, when Moustafa was a teenager named Zero and the world was a much different, though not necessarily better place.
Mr. Moustafa narrates — F. Murray Abraham, like Morgan Freeman, is a wonderful narrator — the story of how he came to the Grand Budapest in its heyday, and how he was chosen by M. Gustave to be his lobby boy, a position Gustave once held himself with great distinction. M. Gustave knows everything about the hotel, upstairs and down. He’s a stern, meticulous but tender-hearted taskmaster who lives in a Spartan little servant’s room in the back of the hotel. His instructions and eloquent speeches are spiced with poetry, laced with irony, and spiked with a “fuck” or two, or more. In the course of his seemingly endless duties, he has seduced and become the lover of a whole company of elderly, blonde, very rich women guests of the hotel, including the fabulously wealthy Madame De (Tilda Swinton, a fine job), who regularly comes to the Grand Budapest to dally with M. Gustave, but now has premonitions of disaster. M. Gustave pooh-poohs her, but she’s right.
Gystave’s new lobby boy, the young “Zero” Moustafa (Tony Revolori), is a refugee from a fictitious war-ravaged middle eastern country, where his family was slaughtered. He was hired by the hotel on a trial basis, though he has seemingly zero experience and zero qualifications, beyond his appealing looks, his lively intelligence and his equable disposition — and he soon also becomes M. Gustave‘s right hand boy, his pupil and his fellow adventurer. And M. Gustave, who is played with near flawless comic technique and brilliance by the not-usually-funny Fiennes, shows him the ropes, teaches him how to multi-task Grand Budapest-style, how to anticipate a guest’s wishes before he or she wishes them. (Revolori plays the teen-aged Zero very well, with nice boyish appeal and presence.)
Their bond is not sexual, or at least not overtly sexual — Zero also has a fine, resourceful pastry-cook girlfriend named Agatha (Saoirse Roman, very good and moving), whom he still remembers and adores years later. But the bond between boss and student sometimes seems a touch homo-erotic, just as Anderson’s movies often seem to be elegant bromances, this one included.
The rite of passage soon becomes a murder mystery. Madame De dies, and M. Gustave and Zero travel by train to her mansion — a journey interrupted when they are nearly arrested by thuggish police, but saved by the gentlemanly Officer Henckels (Edward Norton, a really fine job), whose parents stayed sometimes at the Grand Budapest, and who was befriended by M. Gustave when he was a “lonely little boy.”
We can sense something dark right around the corner, in a story that seemed on its way to being a pure Lubitschian comedy of sexual manners. Murder is afoot. The seeds of totalitarianism, and World War II, are in the soil. And the old world is falling. At the De mansion, the family’s suave attorney Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum, fine also), reads the will, which leaves everything to Madame De’s immediate family and a horde of distant relations — but mainly to Madame De’s vicious son, Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis (Adrien Brody, terrific).
But then Deputy Kovacs opens a second will, delivered to him only that day, which is to replace the earlier one if Madame De’s death is ruled a murder (which seems likely, since she died of strychnine poisoning).
That will leaves most of the money to the family, but also leaves one “priceless” painting, called Boy With Apple, to M. Gustave. And that bequest throws Dmitri — who can, without fear of argument, be called insanely and murderously selfish — into a towering rage and a tantrum, in which he accuses M. Gustave of seducing his mother and others (which is true) of being bisexual (which may be true), of seducing multitudes, including perhaps the Boy with Apple, and orders him arrested, thrown from the house, or destroyed, whichever is easiest. That will be the assignment of Dmitri’s truly scary odd-job man and hired killer, the skull-faced Jopling (Willem Dafoe, a perfect heavy), who begins his workmanlike string of violence and crimes in this movie by socking Zero (who socked Dmitri who socked Gustave) and hurling Deputy Kovacs‘ defenseless cat out the window.
Soon M. Gustave is unjustly in prison, arrested by the gentlemanly Henckels, with Zero and Agatha as part of Gustave’s assembly of outside helpers — which also includes a secret organization of eminent European concierges, called The Society of Crossed Keys. (Bill Murray runs it, ably.) A miniature hacksaw will be smuggled into him in one of those luscious-looking pink and green pastries, part of an escape plan by bare-chested, tattooed jailmate Ludwig (Harvey Keitel, an eerie turn) — while Dmitri gradually graduates from appalling sadism to unspeakable evil, to hot but madly inaccurate triggerman in the God-damnedest gunfight I have ever seen. Meanwhile, Jopling, who has a face like the icy mask of death, and rows of rings on eight fingers that suggest Robert Mitchum’s love-hate display in The Night of the Hunter, lurks around everywhere, mercilessly enforcing Dmitri’s rub-out list.
II. The Hotel
As you can see, The Grand Budapest in its heyday was not only one marvelous hotel, but the movie about it has one hell of a synopsis, and we’re barely halfway through. It’s a formidably intricate and delightfully gamesome tale, packed with grand allusions and lost illusions and fancy little thingumabobs of plot twists. But it’s also sad, melancholy underneath and more and more sad as the story goes on..
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the movie, has many antecedents. On one level, Anderson’s show tells the kind of “rising young man” story we see in cynical-romantic European tales of rites of passage like Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” or Thomas Mann‘s “The Confessions of Felix Krull,” or that splendid underseen Czech film about a rising young waiter, Jiri Menzel‘s I Served the King of England. On another, it’s a Hitchcockian chase-suspense thriller, with two homages to Vertigo and one to The Secret Agent, and another one, God help us, to Topaz. On yet another, it’s an elegantly witty cynical-romantic boudoir comedy of the Lubitsch and Billy Wilder variety — with Wilder’s noir edge sharpening the jokes. On still another, it’s a Woody Allen comedy pastiche period bauble and a Kubrickian high-style chiller with spooky corridors and snowy runways that recall The Shining.
Then there’s the Vladimir Nabokov element: the tricky book-within-a-book structure that suggests the dazzling complexities of Nabokov’astonishingly annotated “Pale Fire” — and a map of Zembla, Nabokov’s annotator‘s “distant northern land.” And there’s Stefan Zweig, the masterly, tragic Viennese Jewish writer whom Anderson says (in the credits), inspired the whole movie. Zweig is best known among cinephiles for writing the novel on which Max Ophuls based that great 1948 tragic Hollywood romance Letter from an Unknown Woman. (Ophuls also directed another classic movie romance, called, suggestively, The Earrings of Madame de…). Zweig, an anti-Fascist literary star of the early twentieth century, with literary friends all over Europe, fled the old world as WW2 spread, and committed suicide in 1942, rather than face a possible post-Hitler hell-world. So Zweig, this movie’s godhead, was no comedian. His stories sometimes suggest almost bottomless sorrow, and his character is replicated here in both the old and young author of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in M. Gustave.
Intricacies and grand allusions are also embedded in Anderson’s playful visual and dramatic style — which achieves maximum density in dialogue, in characterization (there seem to be hundreds of people in the movie, and many of them seem to have back stories), in music (Alexandre Desplat, abetted by buoyant folk music and a lute with plucked strings piece by violin virtuoso Vivaldi), density in plot and, most of all, in imagery. You can hardly ever absorb everything in an Anderson film frame, even if your eyes are oonstantly wandering — and it you do, Anderson and cimematographer Robert Yeoman are liable to start wandering laterally down some Zubrowkan street or hill themselves, or turning your head with one of there swooping pans, those escalator down-and-up shots or those tight showy zooms
Everyone talks about Anderson’s daffy visuals, of course, mostly because they’re so damned crazy-looking and we’re probably amazed (and appreciative) that he can keep getting away with this stuff. But it’s the writing and acting that make this Anderson’s best film, and probably his most appealing to audiences — the wonderful sript and the razor-sharp performances by Fiennes and all the others. This is truly classic American movie writing and acting — in the tradition of To Be or Not To Be and Ninotchka and Unfaithfully Yours and His Girl Friday — and it‘s a kick to see someone even trying to make a movie like this, with this much fizz and sizzle and comic and tragic vocabulary, much less succeeding so well at it.
. In a film by Lubitsch or Wilder or Preston Sturges, it’s the dialogue and how it’s spoken — the zingy rhythms, voluptuous sarcasm, sexy double entendres and deadly irony — that creates most of what we call their style. Lubitsch’s and Wilder’s films look pretty good, mostly because of people like Wilder’s production designer Alexandre Trauner, but I’ve never detected any unusual or remarkable visual style in Preston Sturges’ work, nor does it really need any.
Anderson, who follows in the footsteps of the three men above — they, as well as Zweig, are his teachers — may purposely use his anachronistic technique because that’s how he can best make movies with these sophisticated, ultra-eccentric, razzle-dazle scripts,. The people who don’t like his work find his visual style precious and pretentious, and it sometimes seems precious and pretentious to me too. I could get along without a few of those lateral tracks or sidewise puppet-show compositions. But some of them are beautiful, some are witty, and, at his best — which definitely includes The Grand Budapest Hotel — that seeming artistic eccentricity becomes artistically expressive and entrancingly funny.
III. Comedy and Casablanca
One of the reasons they don’t make romantic comedies, or just plain comedies, like they usd to, is that these days they’re making an entirely different kind of funny movie — one that. many audiences, I suspect, don‘t enjoy as much. . I’m not just talking about the greater sexual frankness today, which actually works very well in the hands of the Judd Apatow group, or Woody Allen, but about the kind of stories mostly being made. In the old days, say in 1932, when The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place, most comedies could be about sex and whoopee sometimes, but they were also often about social collisions, and a lot of them revolved around swindles or con-games or deceptions of some sort.
That’s true of Sturges’ films (especially Hail the Conquering Hero). And Lubitsch’s (especially Trouble in Paradise) and Wilder’s (especially those two late masterpieces, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment). And it’s true of a broad selection of great American movie comedies: from City Lights to Safety Last to The General to Sons of the Desert to A Night at the Opera to Bringing Up Baby to The Bank Dick to The Philadelphia Story to Singin’ in the Rain to Hollywood or Bust to Dr. Strangelove to The Producers to Broadway Danny Rose to even those paragons of movie virtue It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bells of St. Mary’s , where Ingrid Bergman‘s nuns and the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) and Heaven itself pull some fast ones, and switcheroos. The Marx Brothers were a bunch of chiselers and double-shufflers, and so were Hope and Crosby — and as for W.C. Fields, he was probably the greatest bunco artist and flim-flam man the screen has ever seen, or ever will see.
The biggest double shuffle of all involved the ways some of these characters and couples disguised the fact that they were were having sex lives, when, to anyone with brain and a healthy contempt for the Production Code, they so obviously were. There are all kinds of deceptions in Grand Budapest, and it made me nostalgic to see them. I suspect the movie, which was a roaring success last weekend at the multiplexes of Los Angeles where I saw it (twice), would be even more popular if it had the sexy-temptress female character Anderson didn’t include, maybe a high-priced Dietrichesque hooker who works the hotel, with a cut for M. Gustave. But, as it is, the main romance is between M. Gustave and Zero
It’s a romance of words, and M. Gustave is a Paganini of wordplay. The best speakers of dialogue in the Grand Budapest Hotel — the two actors who connect most exhilaratingly with Anderson’s beautifully shaped dialogues and monologue — are Fiennes as M. Gustave and Abraham as the older Moustafa. It’s an unalloyed pleasure to listen to them, to hear what these two great actors can do with their lines, the way they savor both the inner meaning and the sly poetry of the sentences, the way they roll those golden words off their golden theatre-trained tongues — like two great musicians, flawlessly hitting very note and line, yet doing it so casually, so naturally that they all but envelop you in the verbal beauty and high playfulness of the speeches. The crisp verbosity and velocity of the middle-aged M. Gustave in 1932, and the mellow eloquence of the older Mr.Moustafa in 1968 are perfect correlatives for the way each of them faces the world, conquers high society, makes their fortune and outwits their tormentors.
But the other actors are admirable as well. It may sound excessive , as if I‘d been suckered by the movie‘s con-games myself, but, along with the top two actors, I liked every single performance in Grand Budapest and I thought three of them — the villains played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, and the oddly sensitive policeman played by Edward Norton, were almost as good, in their way, as Fiennes and Abraham. It really doesn’t make sense to me to look at this movie, and complain, as several smart critics have, that Anderson cast too many stars and too many actors he’s used before — as if it were wrong somehow to bring in Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum and Lea Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric and Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson and all the rest, sometimes only for a minute or two — any more than it was wrong for John Ford to assemble that very familiar, very Fordian cast for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Wayne, Stewart,Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien (for Tommy Mitchell), Andy Devine, John Qualen, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin and all the others), or for Frank Capra to get together that quintessentially Capraesque bunch for It’s a Wonderful Life, or for Warner Brothers to get a similarly spectacular dramatis personae for Casablanca — three movies that, in many ways, owe a big part of their classic status to their great “loaded“ acting ensembles .
Casablanca is a good cross-reference for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which like Michael Curtiz‘s and Howard Koch’s and the Epstein Brothers’ 1942 masterpiece, tells a sometimes deeply sorrowful and painful story of international conflict and personal turbulence, but puts it under the brisk, crackling veneer of an international thriller, with comedy and romance and music and lots of jokes. But imagine Casablanca if Rick were killed, and Ilse too, and if Renault and Sam came back to the rubble of Rick’s place…
There’s no doubt at all in my mind that Brody’s Dmitri is a fascist-to-be, maybe even a fascist already — nor that Norton’s Henckel was dumped. killed or jailed by fascist leaders who finally purged the gentlemanly policeman. Nor that M. Gustave might have been a Jew, as Deputy Kovacs was, and as Stefan Zweig was, and if they hadn’t been killed by Dmitri’s thug and the Nazi-minded police, or escaped to America, they would have died in the camps, like some of my relatives. That’s the darkness swirling beneath the bright, crazy, madcap — playful — surface of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie which is about far more than just zany little characters caught in melodrama and toy-like sets and lateral tracking shots.
IV. The Audience Rises, The Cast Bows
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about trying to be a human being in a world that turns people into puppets and prisoners and corpses. It’s about trying to survive in a world teetering on oblivion and the brink of apocalypse. It’s about how all we admire most can be destroyed or lost, and how we survive despite it all. And it’s about little pink and green pastries with saws inside, and how to keep the customers happy and how to remember your friends. It’s about how books and movies can preserve what we love. (And that bastard Jopling will pay, dammit, for killing Kovacs’ cat!) It’s about the barley field where the train stops and the police come aboard. It’s about Stefan Zweig and why he killed himself. It’s about The Earrings of Madame de..and God bless Max Ophuls , who made us cry, and Ernst Lubitsch who made us laugh. It’s about life, turned into a show and it’s about people, turned into players. Wonderful actors with a wonderful narrator, on a wondrous stage in a wondrous hotel.
But it’s over now. Lights up. M. Gustave, take a bow. Mr. Moustafa, embrace your friend. Dmitri, smile as they boo you. The entire ensemble bow and smile — and wave to the cheap seats. They‘re the ones, remember, who mostly can’t escape their fates. Applause. Whistles. Bravos. Cue the balalaika. Curtain.