The Grand Budapest Hotel
by Isis Nelson
The Watchlist is a column written by Isis Nelson, Siblíní's resident feminist art critic. In this, she seeks to express her obviously good opinions about film and television. She's totally not making any of this up as she goes, or anything like that.
Welcome to the Republic of Zubrowka, just another (fictional) mountainous European country wrecked by World War II. The remnants of war linger everywhere here; it’s like battle is embedded into the very landscape. Complicated 20th-century European culture coat every surface, yet the history is ugly and bloody, at best. Many survived by staying in Zubrowka, but physical safety is insignificant in this matter. Inside—the war killed all of us—whether you were there when bullets sprayed, or you were born years after the fighting stopped.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a triumphant masterpiece in Wes Anderson’s iconic form. To me, it’s his best film yet. Not just Good, or Great, but absolutely Grand. From the design, to the writing, to the actors; it’s a legitimately solid movie. Every character is eccentric, yet not in an off-putting way. The narrative pulls you in aesthetically and substantially.
You see, Grand Budapest is told through flashbacks and memories. It’s the modern day, and a teenage girl is walking, carrying a memoir, to a monument. She stops, and begins to read—we hear the man who wrote the book she’s holding and is the subject of said monument: The Author. We swift backward to 1985, where The Author himself (Tom Wilkinson), now very old, sits at his desk and narrates as the girl reads. He, The Old Author, dives into the tale that was his visit to the Grand Budapest in 1968.
The Young Author, played by Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anna Karenina), was in Nebelsbad, Republic of Zubrowka. He “found” the remote, mountainside hotel, dilapidated by time and facing difficulties. While it was at once the Very Height of Grandiose Lodgings, it was crumbling slowly right in front of The Young Author. He checked in, spent some days there, and met the questionable concierge, Monsieur Jean—played by Jason Schwartzman (Marie Antoinette, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). An afternoon came along when he met the hotel’s owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, Scarface and Homeland), who was an elderly man.
They agreed to meet later that evening. In the absurdly large dining room, that was empty and haunted-looking, The Young Author and Mr. Moustafa sat at one table. Over dinner, the older man began to regale about how he came to own the Grand Budapest, and why he can’t seem to let go of it. Therein another flashback occurs.
Law and Abraham, although their characters have never met before, give off the aura of old friends. The amount of curiosity and sincerity in Law’s voice, and on his face, is brilliant, quite honestly. Abraham’s eyes while reflecting on Mr. Moustafa’s past are full of nostalgia and regret. Their combined performance in the prologue and epilogue work in every sense, so kudos to them.
We meet the physical hotel, the Grand Budapest, in two very different forms. The first is through the body of the plot (which I won’t spoil): all colorful pastels, ornate details, sharp angles, and the secrecy of passionately murmured names in the ‘30s. When we see The Grand Budapest in tip-top shape, in the beginning, it was 1932: those were the Glory Days.
The latter form of the Grand Budapest is a shadow of the brightness it once was. This can be seen in the prologue, with The Young Author and Mr. Moustafa. This version is intentionally empty, if you’ve picked up on some themes. It can be seen obviously; this hotel is post-WWII, but not post-Soviet. Remember, it’s 1968: mutually-assured destruction is a guarantee of any missile is fired.
The Grand Budapest is, perhaps, a remnant of World War II that was left for dead, but the Cold War picked it up once more. This almost-foreign place is quiet and eerie, hollow-feeling, just as we typically imagine countries where secret police, propagandists, and hidden bugs (microphones/cameras) hide. ‘Tis a mere echo of what existed before the second war.
In the comedic sense, I’ve always loved Anderson and his co-writers’ style. Grand Budapest showcases excellent deadpan and wit at a whip-cracking rate, as per usual. Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter, Spectre) and Tony Revolori (Dope, Spider-Man: Homecoming) both absolutely deliver the film’s best lines. Fiennes’s character—Monsieur Gustave H., who runs the Grand Budapest—goes on convoluted, ridiculous, hilarious rants multiple times, and as the movie goes on, they just get funnier. When they hear some of the most nonsensical lines, every actor does incredibly well in terms of voice tone and expressive facial reaction.
The chemistry within this work should also be noted. Fiennes and Revolori (who plays Mr. Moustafa in his teenage years, going by his first name: Zero) have a quirky, father-son-like relationship. Their back-and-forth is quick, charming, and rib-busting in its strongest moments. I hardly have the words for it, but the two actors’ raw, warm camaraderie is sweet and authentic. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna), who plays Agatha, a professional young pastry baker, is M. Gustave and Zero’s partner in their misadventures. Ronan fits in perfectly and her character has sharp, playful barbs that made me smile endlessly.
Grand Budapest has an extended cast, who play minor characters, with tons of cameos, most of them from Anderson’s past films. Waris Alhuwalia, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson—just to name a few. Their performances are lovely, which is typical. I’ll mention Alhuwalia once more because he’s one of the few non-white actors in Anderson’s work. If you didn’t know, he’s a Sikh man, meaning he wears a turban for religious purposes; said turban is matched to fit scene color design, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. Really, it’s delightful.
On technical levels, Grand Budapest wows again. Cinematographically speaking, the shots and angles are obviously meticulously done, and it really shows. Anderson’s control over the direction and camera style are exact and complete. We see the hotel itself many times in wide shots, and it’s a miniature model—the pure amount of detail is exquisite. In this shots, it is a handmade 10 foot model, and has various size scales.
Emotionally, there are so many diverse, intense moments that I couldn’t name them all if I tried. In past movies, Anderson’s had a hard time making characters that don’t feel like wind-up toys. Grand Budapest is not like the rest, the main characters’ humanity is clear and vibrant. It smiles wryly at false truths, carefully stares at tyranny, and has a heart that’s very sensitive, yet beating strongly. Unlike his other works, this is hinted with dark scenes and references; these manage to be haunting. The air is not stifling or engulfing, but rather heartwarming and a bit blunt, which I can appreciate.
Alexandre Desplat composed this film’s soundtrack, who previously worked with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2010 and Moonrise Kingdom in 2012. Desplat could be called genius, and I wouldn’t disagree. It’s mostly original, along with some Russian folk songs accompanied by pieces composed by Öse Schuppel, Siegfried Behrend, and Vitaly Gnutov, and performed by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra. A music box interlude is in "Up the Stairs / Down the Hall", which is rare and punctuates as you hear it.
All in all: The Grand Budapest Hotel is a must-watch. It’s artsy, creative, at some points intense, and generally just fun to watch. I’ve had difficulties paying attention to some of Anderson’s previous movies, but this one enraptured me. The story-arc is solid, the script has very small flaws, each loss feels like it’s worth something, and very colorful. I would’ve liked to see more people of color, personally; that doesn’t take away from it, though. The cast surpasses expectations fluidly. Go watch and enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel, you won’t regret it.
— Isis Nelson is a 15-year-old writer, poet, and student in Pennsylvania. She writes about human rights, intersectional feminism, politics, and composes prose/poetry in her free time. She blogs too, which you can read here.