Charming. Delightful. And possibly more than that.
Synopsis: a nested series of framing devices move us from the present day back to the fall and winter of 1932, in a fictional country of Zubrowka in what appears to be eastern Europe. The eponymous hotel sits atop a mountain like a giant pink pastry, reached (via stop motion animation, it appears) by a tram that itself is built like a series of steps to accommodate the extreme angle of the mountain.
The interior of the hotel is gorgeous as well:
In 1932, the hotel is run to exacting standards by M. Gustave H (Ralph Finnes), a man with fanatical devotion to detail and a willingness to provide sexual comfort to the wealthy elderly ladies who come to the hotel precisely for M. Gustave.
Prominently featured is Madame D (Tilda Swinton) with a bouffant swirl of white hair perched like a Dairy Queen ice cream atop her head.
Her devotion and reliance on M. Gustave is quickly sketched, and then suddenly, she is dead. Gustave takes newly hired Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori, one of the few actors not already hugely famous) to her estate and arrives at the reading of the will. Madame D has left him a priceless painting, and her grasping son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) accuses Gustave of murdering her.
Imprisoned and awaiting trial, Gustave continues to bring his full personality to the job of wheeling a "meal cart" to the cells, offering the mush as if it were a carte de patisseries. He endears himself to a group of four men who are plotting their escape. Gustave manages to obtain "digging tools"--the most delicate and ridiculous looking tiny items--by having them smuggled inside the pastries made by Zero's fiancée, Agatha (Saorise Ronan).
One Great Escape later, Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ruthlessly murderous Jopling (Willem DeFoe) who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Upon their return to the GBH, they see it is being converted to military use by the the fictive ZZ, the proto-Nazis of this movie.
No surprise, Dmitri is apparently a high ranking member. (And Owen Wilson cameos as the Quisling concierge.)
After Dmitri and Gustave accuse each other of murdering Madame D, a second will comes to light (to be executed only in the event of Madame D's murder) which leaves her enormous fortune to Gustave, including the Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave has a few years to enjoy his new wealth...
...before being shot by the military. Agatha dies a couple of years later of the "Prussian Grippe" with her infant son. The hotel remains open, but becomes drearily "updated" with plastic chairs and wood paneling in 1968.
The story of the hotel, told by "Author" becomes a classic in the country, and the Author's headstone is a pilgrimage site, where people hang their hotel keys in homage.
The plot, of course, is in some ways an excuse for the extravagant visuals, which are themselves meticulously planned. Each of the three time periods (present day, 1968, and 1932) are shot in a different aspect ratio as one way of conveying the passage of years. And even a non-visually adept view like I am began to giggle at Anderson's resolute insistence on framing everything symmetrically. Forget any "rule of thirds"--everything was placed as close to the exact center of the frame as possible.
On the surface, then, it's a comedy murder/caper film, gorgeously staged and highly stylized. In some ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel nails the tone that Muppets Most Wanted tried and failed to achieve. Cartoon villains, stylized violence with some real emotional power (what happens to Jeff Goldblum's character is surprisingly upsetting), and a stylized visual vocabulary constructed in large part via forced perspective--all in service to a story with some heart constructed around an unlikely protagonist: a green felt frog or a sexually ambiguous concierge.
Except--Nazis? Sure, technically, they are "Zig Zags," their logo two lightning bolts forming the letters, and they are brutish, violent, but ultimately easily vanquished. Still--it seems like the presence of even ersatz Nazis would be a serious tonal misfire.* Can comedy Nazis even exist?
Which brings me to the humanity at the core of this highly artificial work. M. Gustave is a clown in a circus created by Wes Anderson, but he is also a man of fundamental values. He embodies hard work, attention to detail, treating everyone around him with respect and dignity. Over and over again (and almost always played for laughs) he treats others weight deep respect, regardless of their situation. Madame D, while incredibly elderly and ridiculous looking, is mocked as an object of sexual desire by everyone except M. Gustave. His performance of fine dining that he brings to the job of passing out prison gruel creates a bond between him and the giant inmate. The gracious way M. Gustave offers the mush--"it needs a bit of salt" he says, seasoning the bowl and then handing it over to the physically intimidating man--embodies the values of hospitality and graciousness. It is paid back to him when the giant's cellmate spots the jail break and tries to raise an alarm. The giant silences the man, and allows Gustave to escape.
Similarly, the mix of high and low is what allows him to enter into the escape plan. He appears at the visitors' station with his face beaten up. He reports that "Pinky" got the worst of the fight, "and actually now we are quite dear friends." Later, he shares his Mendl's pastry with Pinky and the cell mates, using "the throat slitter"--a fairly disturbing switchblade--to divide the dessert. He brings the imperative of running a hotel--welcoming everyone who crosses the threshold--to prison life, and the respect he grants is repaid to him.
And in a world descending into brutality--the ZZ--it is these small graces that make living possible. Literally, when the favors M. Gustave does are repaid, but also to save the world from becoming merely horrific. It is the small pastries, the proper manicure, the spritz of the signature cologne "L'Air de Panache" that provide the means for continuing in the face of destruction. These gestures stand for the larger virtues--loyalty, honesty, humanity. These are not small things.
The trailer does give a taste of what the whole movie is like. I recommend it!
*Speaking of tonal misfires:
In what may be a signature gobsmacking move, Vogue.com offers a slide show of characters from the film, followed with sourcing for a similar look. For M. Gustave, they chose his prison wear--as if that is a look one would want to emulate--and the total cost of the purchasable version is in the vicinity of $2000. Because of course! Who doesn't want to drop two grand to look like a Middle European convict? (Or, more disturbingly, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas--a concentration camp inmate?)
Rochas striped silk trousers, $1,073
The Elder Statesman monster seed cap, $500
The Row Amautio top, $990
Escadrille striped seersucker espadrilles, $125
And, to be pedantic--M. Gustave doesn't wear espadrilles. He very obviously wears wooden sabots. Do your research!
Some boring context and disclaimers.
I have seen several Wes Anderson movies, and I see some common threads, but I can't say I have any systematic understanding of his work. Grand Budapest Hotel has what appears to be some stop motion animation that feels like it grew out of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I saw that movie so very many years ago, and at the time watched it as a movie to see with my kids rather than as a "Wes Anderson film" so I have certainly missed lots about what was going on there.
Similarly, The Royal Tennanbaums was my introduction to his work; I saw that even longer ago. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I have only seen parts of, and thought of as a Bill Murray movie. Probably the closest I have come to watching a Wes Anderson movie as a Wes Anderson movie was seeing Moonrise Kingdom when it first came out. This is how I approached GBH.
My thoughts here are also influenced by the conversation lead by Dana Stevens on the Slate Spoiler Special podcast, which started scratching at the larger meaning behind the movie. Stevens was disappointed by this film, because she felt that Anderson failed to connect with the emotional content of the subject he was playing with. My understanding of her point is that he failed to acknowledge the import of the killings and brutality. To her mind, the movie failed. I don't agree, although I think I understand why she felt the way she did. I think Anderson is actually saying something, but the message (such as it is) is embedded in the exquisite production design. Looking for meaning and emotional power is to kind of miss the point of this movie.
There is a tendency for critics to address the object under review as if the critical assessment is objective, and the missed connections and the flaws exist in the movie (or book, or whatever). The participants in the Spoiler Special make statements like "the movie failed to connect with the emotion." My experience was very different--I felt that the emotion was there, but was deliberately underplayed. Which leads me to believe that the movie and the watcher attempt to meet somewhere in the middle, between the director's intention and the watcher's expectations and readiness. When the two fail to connect, it is a missed communication--what the director was trying to say and what the audience understood of the message may not line up. It is not the "fault" of either party, it is the random nature of human attempts at connection.
So while I may fall into some habits of "the movie did this" or "the director did that," what I am trying to do is to communicate what my experience of the movie was. I may well have gotten it wrong. I may well be so entirely idiosyncratic that I am not a fair measure of whether anyone else will enjoy what I saw. I can say that I believe that Wes Anderson is both seriously playful, and playfully serious, and that there is more than mere surface decoration to this movie. The surface beauty of the film might well have been enough for me--but there is more than that to be had.