THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
A writer encounters the owner of an aging high-class hotel, who tells him of his early years serving as a lobby boy in the hotel's glorious years under an exceptional concierge.
Throughout his career, Wes Anderson’s established himself as one of modern time’s leading directors. His penchant for obsessively detailed dioramas and whimsical storytelling brings his audiences to a rapturous, childlike state. From the quirky Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) to the magical Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the filmmaker’s renowned for constructing scenes in order to create a fully stylised world. However, nothing’s more meticulously realised than The Grand Budapest Hotel. Co-written with frequent collaborator Hugo Guinness, Anderson’s eighth feature is filled with beauty, elegance, and hilarity.
Set in 1932, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) lords over the opulent Grand Budapest Hotel in the mountains of Zubrowka. Following the tragic death of his aging paramour Madame Desgoffe (Tilda Swinton), Gustave, and his protege, Zero (Tony Revolori) flee to pay their respects. Following the reading of her Will, the concierge discovers she’s bequeathed him the priceless Renaissance painting “Boy With Apple”; to the chagrin of her son Dimitri (Adrian Brody), who frames Gustave for the murder of the wealthy heiress. And so, with the help of his trusted Lobby Boy, Gustave must escape prison to clear his name, with the actual killer Jopling (Willem Dafoe) out to silence him and anyone else who could reveal the truth.
Anderson’s whimsical throwback is brought to life by a vast array of incredible performances. Ralph Fiennes (The Dig) is on excellent form, seamlessly slips into Anderson’s expanding repertoire of actors. As the legendary concierge Monsieur Gustave, he runs the titular hotel like a military operation. While catering to the outrageous demands of the wealthy, he’s a man of sophistication who believes etiquette helps define civilisation. Gustave’s a man of peculiar taste; he prefers his chocolate decadent, his perfume pungent, and his women rich and blonde. Demonstrating a heretofore unseen playfulness, Fiennes is a natural when it comes to delivering quick-witted dialogue. “When you are young, you have filets, but eventually you must move on to the cheaper cuts”, he muses. Fiennes is hilariously flamboyant and delivers some of the most entertaining vulgarities since his appearance in In Bruges (2008). The actor breathes an unbelievable amount of life into his character in an irresistible blend of whimsy, elegance, and mischief, It’s refreshing seeing him in a role that requires a certain level of physical comedy and quirkiness one doesn’t often see in his work. Every moment he’s on screen is an absolute pleasure.
Much like fellow unknowns Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward from Moonrise Kingdom, Tony Revolori (Spider-Man: Far From Home) made his feature-length debut here. As the young Zero, the newcomer brings a reserved sense of maturity not often seen in young actors. As Gustave’s protege, the two share great chemistry on screen, bringing an excellent touch of comedy and pathos. Their relationship serves as the beating heart of the story and it’s so endearing to see it develop. What begins as a mentor/pupil bond eventually becomes a heartwarming friendship between two peers. There’s an extremely touching moment between them that truly encapsulates their connection. Following a daring prison break, Gustave says “I owe you my life. You are my dear friend and protege”. To which Zero responds “we’re like brothers”, reminding the bewildered concierge why he’s remained a faithful friend. Additionally, as the older Zero, F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) adds gravitas and emotional resonance to his character during his brief scenes.
While the story centres firmly around the relationship between Gustave and Zero, there’s a variety of colourful supporting characters, like Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) as Zero’s love interest and pastry chef, Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance makes it perfectly clear why Zero found Agatha’s sharp pragmatism alluring. Another wonderful performance comes from Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as one of Gustave’s elderly lovers, Madame Desgoffe. Almost unrecognisable under copious makeup, Swinton gives a playful performance as the insecure and desperate heiress. Adrian Brody (The Darjeeling Limited) also delivers a deliciously vindictive brand of villainy as Dimitri, while Willem Defoe (Wild at Heart) provides a memorable turn as a sinister henchman. As one would expect, there are a plethora of cameos from regulars of Anderson’s ouevre. Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore), and Jeff Goldblum (Isle of Dogs) all make appearances. However, the highlight occurs during a pivotal scene featuring Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) and Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Following the prison break, Gustave calls upon a guild of concierges called Society of the Crossed Keys. With only a handful of lines, Murray’s still capable of delivering his trademark ironic humour required for Anderson’s script.
Just as authors have particular writing styles, Anderson uses his sensibilities to express his distinct visual flair as a filmmaker. His compositions are as meticulously crafted as ever, deploying many of his idiosyncrasies: symmetrical shots, carefully-timed comedy, and quirky miniatures. One can’t but admire Anderson’s planimetric staging as his scenes are captured against a perpendicular background. Similar to the films of the silent era, the stationary camera is always at the centre of the action. Capturing characters and vehicles enter the frame from the side of the screen. Many would argue this style is monotonous. However, one would contest the geometrical sequences enhance the visual gags. The physical comedy during the prison break sequence evokes similarities to The Grand Illusion (1937). We see silhouettes slowly move across the screen before we see the characters quietly crawling underneath the guards’ beds. It’s incredibly surrealistic and could have easily been lifted from a Coen Brother’s flick. These quirky and adventurous elements of the story allow the director to utilise a variety of techniques to communicate the action unfolding.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a feast for the eyes, full of hand-painted backdrops and miniatures to establish scenes. The most appealing element about Adam Stockhausen’s (12 Years a Slave) production design is how he creates the illusion we’re viewing Anderson’s world through a snow globe. Similar to the handmade miniature lighthouse in Moonrise Kingdom, Stockhausen created the observatories and funiculars by hand, while a 9′ tall replica of the pastel pink titular hotel was built for exterior scenes. As demonstrated in Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs (2018), Anderson admires psychical models and stop-motion animation. As he states “of course everyone can tell instantly it’s a model. You’re not fooling anybody. But it’s something that I associate with cinema history.” Admirably, the director uses miniatures here to create several scenes that would be almost impossible to achieve without CGI. Most notably a high-speed ski chase down a mountain that’s captured entirely in stop-motion. The Grand Budapest Hotel demonstrates that Anderson is completely in control of his distinctive cinematic universe. Like a Stanley Kubrick movie wearing a smiley face, the combination of filming techniques makes this one of his most visually compelling features.
Wes loves the Ernst Lubitsch films of the 1930s. We looked at those more to familiarise ourselves with the 1:37:1 aspect ratio, which Wes wanted to use for the 1930s sequences.—Robert Yeoman
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an incredibly stylistic film and Anderson implements many of his visual aesthetics to blissful effect. However, the storytelling expands beyond the filmmaker’s distinctive and formalistic style. Although the director deserves praise for such work, credit must be shared with the phenomenal cinematography by Robert Yeoman (Dogma). The Grand Budapest Hotel is structured from three perspectives, each in its own time period. The bookended sequences in 1975, featuring the elderly author (Tom Wilkinson) discussing his influences for the book, are captured in widescreen 1:85:1. Whereas flashbacks set in 1968, when the young author is portrayed by Jude Law (Captain Marvel), are filmed in Cinemascope 2:35:1. Most significantly, as the main narrative transitions to 1932 and we follow Gustave, it’s captured in the Academy ratio of 1:37:1. The multiple presentations reflect three different narratives, aptly highlighting the director’s refined story within a story structure. It’s an elegant solution to a problem many filmmakers encounter when displaying various intertwining timelines. However, Anderson resolves the issue and makes it a beautiful artistic asset. It’s another layer of detail to this already incredibly beautiful work of art.
During principal photography, Anderson and Yeoman spent their time location scouting in Germany and Poland. Similar to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Moonrise Kingdom, vague historical and geographical references place the story between fantasy and reality. The director curated an expansive image library of European hotels from the 1930s as visual references that were relevant to the story. Whilst filming in Germany, Yeoman stated “we actually found some of our locations that way, and a few of them looked a lot like they did 108 years ago”. Stockhausen’s decorated the hotel with heavy oak doors complete with gold handles, wide staircases, and long corridors lined with red carpets. The director has made no secret of Ernst Lubitsch’s influences, and the nostalgic European elegance evokes similarities to the German filmmaker’s lavish resort featured in Monte Carlo (1930). Whereas the fictitious Eastern European province of Zubrowka echoes the fictional kingdom Flausenthurm in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Anderson wears his influences on his sleeve, paying loving homage to Lubitsch’s renowned European sophistication aesthetic.
Inspired by the writing of Austrian novelist Stephan Zweig, there’s a melancholy undertow to The Grand Budapest Hotel. Beneath Anderson’s golden-hued nostalgic lens remains the melancholy flaws and tragedies of bygone worlds. Written whilst fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany, the empire depicted by Zweig doesn’t focus on whimsical romance, Courtesan au Chocolat, and exciting duels. The main focal point is nationalism, prostitution, and disease. The filmmaker ensures authoritarianism encompasses each frame, closing in as the story progresses. In the ’30s, the bustling hotel is draped in pastel pinks and blues. Whereas in the ’60s, the hotel is subdued and forgotten, painted with harsh browns and oranges. Additionally, Anderson reworks Nazi “S.S.” iconography to “Z.Z” as the imagined fascists who slowly occupy the hotel. If one looks beyond the surface, the filmmaker preaches the need for grace and elegance in humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel remains an ode to a world of sophistication and consideration which was destroyed by the barbarity of World War II. While the filmmaker narrowly avoids emphasising the war itself, he instills an important lesson about tolerance, governance, and the state of law. As Gustave says “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity”.
There’s no doubt The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most ostentatious films to date. The symphony of colours, whimsical story, and witty dialogue are married together seamlessly, heightening his trademark aesthetic. The attention to detail is phenomenal and not a second is wasted on presenting a nearly perfect blend of visual artistry. While its three-layered narratives may seem ambitious, the filmmaker triumphantly finds a balance between friendship, romance, villainous treachery, and politics. Admittedly, one could argue the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic direction is style over substance. However, beneath the surface is a melancholic social critique of humanity. Regardless, The Grand Budapest Hotel is almost as sweet as Mendl’s confectionary.
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Continuing their relationship with Wes Anderson, Criterion has finally released The Grand Budapest Hotel in the UK. Presented in 1080p, the image was sourced from the original 35mm camera negative and supervised by the filmmaker. While the feature uses multiple aspect ratios depending on the time period depicted, the image is technically presented in 1:85:1. Regardless, Criterion has delivered an outstanding transfer for their Blu-ray.
Although Anderson’s used a similar colour palette before, here it’s most striking here. Focussing primarily on pastel pink and baby blue, the colour scheme is beautifully reproduced. Leaping from the screen with prominence, the purple uniforms, lavish red carpets, and snowy scenery equally look incredible. The levels of detail are sublime and allow one to truly appreciate the work that went into creating this fictional world. Minor details such as hair strands, fabric textures, and individual snowflakes can easily be discerned. Facial tones remain clear, with the finest features including Gustave’s wrinkled face and Madame D’s freckles appearing realistic. Admittedly, there’s no discernible difference between 20th Century Fox’s 2014 Blu-ray release. However, for both Criterion collectors and Anderson fans, this latest edition would make a wonderful addition to their collection.
The Grand Budapest Hotel checks in with an immersive English DTS-HD 5.1 original audio track. Like most of Anderson’s features, the music is certainly the highlight. Alexandre Desplat’s (The Shape of Water) Academy Award-winning score sounds superb. The hauntingly hypnotic and entrancing tones surround the soundstage, complementing the action on the screen. The dialogue and narration remain crisp and clean anchored primarily at the front. The dynamic range is surprisingly impressive, with the smallest of background noises nicely dispersed around the sound system. The ambient environmental sounds are handled well, complimenting the vast interiors of the hotel. Whether it’s the bustling activities of the 1930s or the nearly vacant 1960s, they both boast great fidelity. Overall, it’s an incredibly immersive track that compliments the picture.
director: Wes Anderson.
writer: Wes Anderson (story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness)
starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori.