It’s become rather fashionable to hate on Wes Anderson. His name and his work are often referenced when talking shit about the hipster subculture, which everybody seems to love to do these days. He’s even blamed for giving rise to many of the more obvious tropes of hipsterdom, as though his early films were the blueprint that started it all.
And hell, maybe they were. As far as I’m concerned it’s a moot point. An artist has little responsibility for how his or her work is interpreted by an audience, what life it takes on once released into the wild. I’m certain that twee urbanites would likely have found their way to oversized sunglasses and stylized facial hair had Richie Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou never existed.
The point I’m getting at is that you shouldn’t let anybody else’s idea of who Wes Anderson is keep you from seeing what may be one of the director’s greatest films and certainly one of the best pictures to be released so far this year. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an astounding production, a character-driven period piece conducted in Anderson’s trademark style that manages to be as socially engaging as it is fun to watch.
Credit is due in large part to a remarkable performance from Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H. The character was written by Anderson specifically for Fiennes, and it fits him like a well-tailored pale lavender Italian leather driving glove. He is the film’s centerpiece, as intrinsic to the tone of the film as the elaborate set pieces, the brilliant locations and the lavish costume and art design.
That’s not to belittle the contributions of the other actors assembled, but Fiennes shines with the kind of light that you are lucky to see once in an actor’s career so wholly does he inhabit Monsieur Gustave. It’s obvious that he and the rest of the cast are savoring every moment of the roles they were handed and it’s impossible not to do the same as an audience member. Most of Anderson’s collaborators are back in some capacity, with outstanding turns for Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe. Defoe’s near-mute murderous henchman in particular is a delight and Brody’s schmucky asshole opportunist is laugh-out-loud funny.
It helps that the characters are propelled forward at near break-neck speed by the film’s primary plot. Once we get past a few layers of frame story and step back into 1932 to the fictional country of Zubrowka and the glory days of The Hotel Grand Budapest things accelerate fairly quickly. At its heart, the film is a caper story — a tale of heist, pursuit and escape. Since this is a Wes Anderson film, you’ll additionally encounter the ever-present theme of the abandoned son and replacement father figure, here portrayed artfully by Fiennes’ Monsieur Gustave in the latter role and Tony Revolori as Zero in the former. There’s also the requisite adolescent love story, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The relationship between Gustave and Zero is central to the proceedings. Zero, having lost all of his family to the ravages of war, seeks work as a bellhop at The Grand Budapest. Gustave, as the hotel’s concierge, takes him under his wing to show him the ropes. This employer/employee association soon blossoms into greater camaraderie, with Zero becoming Gustave’s right hand man, a true protégé to the concierge.
It’s important to note that the film depicts the role of concierge in this era in a very specific light. The concierge of a hotel such as The Grand Budapest is so much more than a desk jockey; he is the life’s blood of the institution, a paragon of the standards of service and chivalry, a man able to realize the wishes and whims of his clientele on a moment’s notice. The power he wields is immense, the respect he garners substantial. Anderson goes so far as to create an underground network of concierge, the Society of the Crossed Keys, a behind-the-scenes sect of gentlemen staffing hotels across the globe, able to marshal extraordinary resources should one of their own come in to need.
It’s the sort of whimsical touch that Anderson excels at, and it characterizes Monsieur Gustave and his ilk as men apart. They are neither the higher echelon of society who are their clientele, but nor are they merely servants. Attired in their spotless and well-kept uniforms, they move in both worlds. Through this, Anderson addresses issues of class in a deft and almost nonchalant way. The film also engages the theme of war, and though the principalities are fictional the encroachment of fascism, the effects of oppressive bureaucracy, and the dawning grimness of war are all clearly felt.
Anderson’s films and the conflicts therein are often focused solely on the interpersonal, and this broadening of scope allows a bit of profundity to bleed in from the background. The focus is still clearly on the characters, the romance between Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) is as tender and bittersweet as any in Anderson’s oeuvre. Gustave’s tutelage of Zero, though often constrained by the propriety of his vaunted position, allows for moments of true paternal connection and genuine friendship. Perhaps because of the setting, the stakes, the background of war, there is less a tendency towards the saccharine here. The film just feels right, but I may be a bit of a sucker for this particular mix of joy and sadness.
It must be said that the film looks remarkable in Blu-Ray. Having seen it originally in the theater I was concerned that some of the scenes utilizing miniatures would feel less impressive on a smaller screen, but the effect is transposed to home theater capably. As he can be depended upon to provide, Anderson’s film is a curio cabinet full of details and wonder, all impeccably shot.
Bill Murray Tours the Town (4:18) – A brief but delightful jaunt about the town of Gorlitz, on the German/Polish border, conducted by everybody’s favorite Wes Anderson collaborator. If you’re a fan of Murray’s dry sense of humor or are the type of person who might be prone to purchasing a Bill Murray-themed coloring book, this is required viewing.
Vignettes (9:00) – Three short pieces, shot in Anderson’s presentation style, covering variously; A slideshow of the history of The Author that gives background on Zubrowka, a piece focusing on The Society of the Crossed Keys and a how-to baking instructional allowing you to recreate Mendl’s signature pastries.
The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel (18:08) – This piece goes into detail about the sourcing of the location that would eventually become The Grand Budapest as well as several other facets of the filmmaking process. It’s appropriately juicy for fans of Anderson’s films, as you get a glimpse into just how large-scale the production is. Interviews with the cast, the production and art teams and the producer round things out. This feature is the most substantial of the three, and clips from it are recycled into the other two.
Cast (3:24) – A bit of material here not seen in the longer piece, mostly cast members discussing Wes Anderson with a certain far away look in their eyes, though you do get some insight into how a few approached their various characters.
Wes Anderson (3:46) – Brief snippets from the director discussing the influence of author Stefan Zweig on the film and a bit more elaboration on elements from the production discussed in the longer piece.
Stills Gallery – I don’t often recommend bothering with a DVD or Blu-Ray’s Stills Gallery feature, but this one is worth your time. So many props and elements of the film were hand-made for the production, and this gallery gives you an isolated view of a lot of the design work that went into bringing the world to life. From hotel branding elements and signage to fake newspapers containing fully rendered stories and shots of the famous Mendl’s pastry packaging, there’s just a lot here to fawn over.
Theatrical Trailer (2:26)