This review was originally posted in March 2014. The images are from the film and are not my own.
Every since seeing Moonrise Kingdom in a small theatre in 2012, Wes Anderson’s films have always held a certain magic over me. His minutely crafted details draw me in, but I return for the character’s honest and painful journeys, reminding me of the joys ever present in this life.
Wes Anderson always creates artificial or nostalgic worlds that are tucked away in their own space and time, connected to our world yet entirely their own. By its very title implying old world Europe, The Grand Budapest Hotel lets you know that this story will accentuate these traits. Yet Wes eases us into this faraway country by the use of not two but three prologues, each in a separate aspect ratio. It is a time very different than ours, where Andersoneon visual symmetry and character quirkiness feel entirely natural.
And so the hotel and its surrounding landscape, like a luxurious visual pop-up book dusted with icing sugar, is the ideal medium for Wes to perfect his signature style. Visual elegance is matched by characters so pitch-perfect that one false step would ruin the illusion - but this delicate pastry of a movie is in the hands of meticulous master and there are no false steps.
A good portion the fun is its wound-up mechanical clock of a story involving train rides at night, tramways up snow covered mountains, luge sled chases (in stop motion) and an evil villain (William Defoe) with so many giant rings that his fingers are an ever present brass knuckle. The flavour is that of a Tintin adventure and the joy of the action is equaled by the joy of its humour. Wes Anderson’s jokes are always character driven and the characters here are numerous and in perfect step with each other. It's as if Wes gathered a "whose who" of old and new Hollywood players, impeccably outfitted and moustached them, and let them play their best, serving the story rather than themselves.
Ralph Fines plays M. Gustave H, a vain concierge, egotistic in his ever present service, dedicated in detail (and body) to every guest at his hotel (which all happen to be old, rich and equally fuelled by flattery). One of these guests, Madam D. (Tilda Swinton as her future self), is murdered in her mansion, setting off a goose chase involving fortune, a old-master painting, henchmen in black and the (somewhat) innocent against the (purely) evil.
But just Madam D.’s fear foreshadows her eventual murder, an approaching darkness grows in the background of the picture, visualized by SS soldiers at checkpoints and the decay established in the prologue. This darkness announces its permanent arrival through several unexpected and grizzly deaths. This may be a fairytale world, but it is rooted in a real and tragic history.
This darkness helps balance what would otherwise be almost too sweet to swallow. Much like the film's tiny pastries that hid iron weapons, this confection of a film contains serious themes under its delicate wrapper. Guestave H., through his lobby boy in training (Tony Revolori), undergoes a journey from vanity to humility and sacrifice. His protégée, Zero, realizes that against these dark tides of Nazism and socialism there is real love to protect and cherish - love for his fiancé Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and his now elder brother Guestave H. Zero, who arrived in Europe with “zero” family, has found one. And even if tragedy takes them, his memories of them will leave him content.
But there is hardly time to catch one's breath to let these themes sink in, which is perhaps why this volume doesn't rank as high in my books as Anderson’s other, more poignant, stories. And does this dark undercurrent lend itself to despair? Is there a certain sense of cynicism - the knowledge, given through the prologue before the story begins that as grand and elegant and beautiful as this Europe was, it would soon implode to death, decay, and depression - a grim riper, hiding in the dark shadows with socked feet? Perhaps, but one might argue that this is a realism that gives this visual delight its staying power. And lest we worry that subsequent times were devoid of beauty and humanity, Wes Anderson's other films should serve to remind us that joy, sorrow, repentance, and delight - life itself - will continue.