The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that resonates with me like no other. In what it represents as a piece about storytelling, legacy, memory, trust in your companions, and an unwavering desire to strive for the best, it is unmatched. It embodies a sense of urgency about the lives that were lived before ours that we might not usually consider. A reflection on how we might build up the events in our own lives to be grandiose affairs. To us they are, but on a larger scale they’re just memories of individuals. However important the plot of this film seems while you’re watching, by the end it’s overshadowed by a war, and the sobering realisation that beyond the writings of a late author, it will likely be forgotten by the world at large. How many extraordinary events in the real world have been simply forgotten?

Everyone who ever lived was once young, the centre of their own story, their own world. While people in the past have of course speculated and dreamed what the future might have in store for civilization, the hustle and bustle of everyday life still occurs. The events of this film are fantastical, heightened, even farcical, yet as the story is unravelling the focus never wavers from the “here and now”. Even with brief asides from the storytellers, the central story never loses its grip. Every moment, every beat is treated with as much importance as the last. You believe the characters are truly living in the moment. As far as we’re aware they are the centre of this world we’ve been invited into. For the time we’re with them they are, but by the end we reach the realisation that this story, however entertained we were while experiencing it, comes to an end, which has several implications. Essential characters die with no fanfare, establishments you can’t imagine living without fall into despair, and there’s necessarily any happy endings. This story could not have happened with a single piece missing, yet in an instant they’re cruelly taken, shaping the lives of whoever is around to tell their story. While we don’t see these events directly happen, we realise it has informed everything about how and why the story is being told. In the grand scheme of things the intimacy of a story like this could very well be lost to time. What we are treated to is a third or fourth hand account, by someone of a clearly different generation, but it could be seen that this story will indeed last in one form or another.

Structure

This brings me to the framing of the story. Despite being set at various points in the 20th century it never feels retrospective, which is obviously at odds with its very nature. Definitely nostalgic at times, but only when characters are directly reflecting on their own experiences, bringing forth great emotion in a film that moves along so quickly there usually isn’t time for such things. A story which is being told, which is then written, which is then presented, which is then interpreted by a reader, which is whose perspective we are seeing this story through. It’s nothing but a step into the past. But the weight with which events are treated, we’re so easily able to relate to all of their intentions and behaviours. This is largely aided by the totally fictional setting and its makeup.

The film has a historical setting, even specifically dated at points, but nobody is from anywhere specific (despite a menagerie of accents). All locations, countries, nationalities, factions, and currencies are made up (even if they’re supposed to lean towards real world counterparts) . It contrasts with other period pieces, in that the general mood about those is overshadowed somewhat by frequent reminders of how our lifestyles may share similarities or differences, or we notice cultural identifiers. It might work for those films, but here it would serve as a distraction. It might be why fantasy works so well for some people as a genre. Everything you’re seeing is familiar, humans speaking your native language, societal norms, familiar practices etc, yet there are no mental gymnastics while you’re watching thinking “oh this actually took place so many years ago while so-and-so was alive”. This serves the film perfectly in immersing the viewer in the setting, making us feel like we’re alongside these characters, as opposed to viewing them from a distance. Which to me is what period pieces often feel like.

It feels like for once we have a reason why a Wes Anderson film is so full of his trademark style. For me, it’s the most appropriate place for his dialogue that hits that way it does, and why absolutely everything looks picture perfect. As the film opens, a young girl sits at a bench adjacent to a memorial of a writer, sitting down to read one of his works. We then see the writer presenting that work directly to camera. The only point the audience is directly addressed, and from which point we need to assume what we’re seeing is the young reader’s interpretation of what happened. Then we have another jump back in time, the author discovering the story and having it told to him by a mysterious, seemingly sentimental gentleman. Then we have that man tell the story of his mentor. It’s clear to see how through so many recitals of the story how and why things are presented through rose-tinted glasses. A sentimental man recounting his past, an author trying to write an interesting book, and a wide eyed reader experiencing the work of a renowned figure, for what could be the first time or the umpteenth time.

The story has been whittled down to its essentials, yet those parts are so full of beautiful details, it almost feels like fantasy. The structure so perfectly captures a leap through time in a seamless fashion, that later comes back to bring out an emotion I’ve never fully felt in a film before. As events begin to wrap up and we start to regress to our starting point, that cut back to the aged storyteller and attentive author hits you with a myriad of emotions. You’re so used to the dollhouse like 4:3 image, the sheer warmth of the vast dining hall in widescreen almost puts you into a state of shock. It’s a gutteral one-two punch, from a scene taking place in black and white, totally at odds with every single other frame of the film, and Gustave meeting his end. You’ve just remembered you’ve been told a story, but it was so vivid and real. Every time I watch it I involuntarily take a deep breath. It’s a sigh of relief, the worst is seemingly behind us, yet there’s still a lot of pure emotion to deal with in the present.

The way this film is presented is nothing short of brilliant. Everything has a purpose that entices the audience and builds the world, providing subtle reasons as to why everything is the way that it is. Entirely unconventional in the breakdown of how the story is told, yet it’s able to hit so close to home. One subtle touch with the framing is that almost every place in time is labelled (1932, 1968, 1985), yet our entry point is totally ambiguous. There are certain elements of the environment that you could try and infer a place in recent history, but the nature of this choice lends itself to the idea that thanks to the wonder that is storytelling any person from any generation should be able enjoy and relate to this story.

Themes

One theme that is prevalent is the idea recognising legacy. Trying to uphold standards of a bygone era, holding onto the values that we deem important to our identities. One of my favourite lines in the whole piece is “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace”. At the time the line is spoken, it’s the first major thing to key you in to the fact that the story you’ve just witnessed almost has to be full of embellishments and romanticisation. It’s a stark realisation, the central character of M. Gustave was not at all suited to the world he was living in, and it likely got him killed. But at the same time, it was this lifestyle that led to the story at hand. He lived his truest self, never compromising. A kind soul who treasured things dear to him and ended up parting his legacy onto someone. Can anyone hope to do anything more with their life?

This theme strikes me for multiple reasons. Throughout the story you can see the effect Gustave has on those around him. For as much as his lifestyle gets him into trouble, it also ends up in him being a glimmer of hope for some people. He proves to be a faithful companion to Madame D, who as far as we can tell is seen as a ruthless and selfish family. His cell mates in prison are enabled to escape due to his presence and connections, and primarily he is the ultimate mentor for Zero, undoubtedly shaping the course of his life. From his succinct backstory, the limited prospects for a character like Zero are outlined early on.

When the whole picture becomes clear by the end and you think back on the series of events, you realise that without the attitude Gustave has towards his life and his work (if there’s even a difference), the positive influence that would be lost on the world is immeasurable. This is summed up aptly in the quote “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. He was one of them”. Ironically Gustave doesn’t manage to finish this quote, briefly dropping his pretence. This is later recalled and finished by Zero, probably the last living person to know him as well as he did.

Gustave’s attitude towards life is one that very much stands out in the ensemble of characters in the film. It seems to be a world filled with people who are either lazy, uptight, or narcissists. While effectively all characters are defined by their profession, note is made that Gustave seemed to take genuine pleasure in the undertaking of his duties. Everyone else carries themself with that trademark Wes Anderson demeanor, never overstated or animated, flatly delivering their dialogue. It seems to be Gustave’s mission in life to impart some legacy on the world he happens to inhabit, making him stand out from the crowd. We see the impression he has on the younger characters of Zero and Agatha, in the moments that Zero gifts a book of romantic poetry, a move that feels uncharacteristic for someone his age, and when Agatha recites the most apt bit of poetry in reflection on Zero and Gustave’s relationship.

Towards the end of the film as Zero is about to make his exit, he’s asked by the author if he kept the hotel in an attempt to preserve the legacy of M. Gustave. In a moment that catches you off guard we learn it’s not out of an undying desire to keep alive what Gustave was trying to do. It's a purely sentimental gesture born out of tragedy, in the loss of Agatha. It’s an intention that grounds the film in reality, and is another marker of how personal stories can just end up overshadowed by world events and politics. Details are preserved in the arts, which we need to value as the lead characters do. The state of the hotel is derelict compared to its original state. Only in the telling of the story is the value found.

Aesthetics

Wes Anderson’s most well known trait as a filmmaker is the visual makeup of his films. Symmetry and straight lines are abundant as expected, but compared to the rest of his catalogue this is his most flamboyant and striking affair. All sorts of pastel shades of purple and pink dominate entire lavish locations, and where they’re absent scenes are lit with a softness unseen in almost any other film made in this generation of super sharp and slick cinematography. All close-ups, mediums, and wides feel so dramatic. There’s always a sense of scale and detail present.

A variety of aspect ratios are also utilized to accompany each time period, but the main portion of the film takes place in 4:3. Obviously an homage to films of the relevant era, but also a choice that totally raises the energy levels in the amount of detail packed into every frame. Space feels extremely limited and valuable, so nothing can be wasted. Your focus feels so driven on everything going on in the frame due to the density, and almost fear of missing something. Without the aspect ratios, it would still be easy to differentiate which time period you are watching, but it can’t be understated how much the shape of an image affects the impressions it gives you. There’s a reason you feel so much of an impact in the shots leading up to the credits, as we start falling forwards in time, the memory of the events we just witnessed defined by their scope and by who was conveying their part of the story.

Personally, I could spend forever marveling at every shot in the film. On my first watch I was struck by the way the camera perfectly matched some of the movements of the characters, as well as the manner in which characters just moved across the frame, interacted with props, or even just stood in the background. A total air of efficiency is created within the various settings, which is honestly the word I’d use to sum up the energy of this film. Calculated and efficient. Watching this world function is just a pleasure. The pacing of interactions between characters is totally unnatural yet gets the point across. Everyone says exactly what they need to say, every movement is so deliberate, there is absolutely not a single moment wasted in the duration of the film.

Through the aforementioned energy summoned by the aesthetic choices, a layer of suspension of disbelief is built. However unlikely or bizarre the events of the story might seem when taken out of context, the overall image built up makes the whole piece airtight. A cat thrown out a window as an act of aggression, then said cat then stored in a coat check? Somehow tonally fits in with the film, and also manages to make you laugh. A ski chase down the side of a mountain, styled as if you’re watching miniatures, somehow feels like the next natural step. How else would a chase scene in said location look? Silhouettes moving across the frame in a way that doesn’t look natural or even physically possible just adds to the magic and fantasy of it all.

Every choice just stacks up to support the world being built. While they’re Anderson’s choices, they can be read as the embellishments of the characters relaying the story. After all, what we’re witnessing in any film is never realistic, so the presentation of the story taking these liberties might as well be explored. I see a large part of this film as a look at the nature of storytelling and romanticisation.

Character

Another area the film excels in is creating memorable characters. Despite the fact that there are essentially two main characters, a huge ensemble is present with renowned actors taking on relatively small roles, and even most unsubstantial players have their place in the story. The size of the cast doesn’t diminish the depth you can find in every character. It’s almost as if there was an attempt to vicariously acknowledge figures who were possibly essential in historic events but weren’t recognised, as well as just showing off the sheer spectrum of how many lives the character of Gustave managed to reach. This film didn’t need characters like Igor, Dimitri’s sisters, or the Author’s grandson, but they help fill out the world, and somehow Anderson knows how to write and cast these parts to be just as memorable as the heroes and villains.

Central to the story is Gustave H, who seems to stand out and above every other character we meet. He carries himself with a sense of grace and decorum that nobody else is able to match, aside from those who look up to him. Always knowing exactly what to say and being so self assured in his actions. Never a moment's hesitation, personifying an attitude towards life I believe a person could only hope to achieve. Totally uncompromising and set in his ways (in a fashion that doesn’t hurt others). Yet this outward presentation and flamboyant personality isn’t all that makes up the eccentric figure.

While almost every moment he’s on screen he’s being the charming centre of attention, there’s a side of him revealed in a few brief moments that add a melancholic layer of genuine emotion to his character. In what can be only described as one of the few down beats in the film, he is stood on a balcony in the cold winter weather of this alpine town, facing away from the camera towards the landscape. A brief pause before the ensuing chaos commences. It’s the introduction to his character and on an initial watch the moment is probably forgotten fairly quickly, but on subsequent viewings it stands out. It’s almost like a deep inhale before engaging in a sprint. The scene then plays out, punctuated by him giving quick and precise orders to his staff, engaging in a conversation where emotions are high, and the chaotic events of the film play out from there. But in that quiet moment we see Gustave in a state of deep contemplation or reflection, and we realise there has to be more to this character than the way he presents himself.

The only other moment we see Gustave like this it catches us off guard. We see him in the solitude of his almost baron living quarters, his only personal effect being his collection of perfume. The whole environment is totally absent of any colour we’ve quickly become acquainted with, and his outward expression is void of any of his usual charm or enthusiasm. He seems to have dropped the facade entirely, perhaps indicating how he puts on a show for those around him, but upholds an infectiously upbeat demeanor to try to mitigate the fact that the world he longs for is already gone.

We see his world is full of chaos and constant goings-on, and as concierge of a popular hotel he’s consistently at the centre of it. So any moment he finds himself alone, it’s a brief pause where he can contemplate and embrace the quiet, and perhaps conjure the energy required to go about his duties.These moments also serve a passing window into what’s going on beneath the eccentric exterior. A totally lonely man who, as his world is said to have been gone “long before he ever entered it”, holds superficial relationships with exclusively older women and exists almost in defiance of the world around him. There might be a lot going on under the surface, but as we’re being told this story and not seeing it first hand, we can only speculate on this particular point.

The rest of his time on screen Gustave manages to be the centrepiece to the story, around which everything revolves. So many characters are shown to be reliant on him, there never seems to be anything out of the question that he wouldn’t do for someone, all while managing not to spread himself too thin. This general attitude towards life is one I found inspiration in. Never settling for anything less, while living up to his own standards, and disregarding whether that lines up with the values of society at the time. He’s totally cultured in his own way, a connoisseur of romantic poetry and perfume, but it’s the genuine passion and drive I admire so much. And of course the way it’s brought to life through the dialogue and performance.

There seems to be a common trait consistent in Wes Anderson’s protagonists. This is that of the outcast. The dreamer who clearly doesn’t fit in with the world around them. Rushmore’s Max Fischer, an academic not at all suited to his surroundings, but tries to bring about change through his unrivaled passions. The three brothers of Darjeeling Limited couldn't be more at odds with each other, all the while finding themselves navigating a totally foreign world. And never has the descriptor of underdog been more apt than when watching Isle of Dogs’ Atari Kobayashi. When you start to compare this thread with the general attitude Anderson seems to have about filmmaking, in that he is totally unconventional in his style and seems to pay no attention to contemporary sensibilities in relation to his own work, it becomes clear that his leads are often proxies for himself.

So many of the surrounding characters are worth mentioning, it would take too long to give them all the recognition they deserve. As mentioned earlier most characters can be defined by their profession, and in service of the film it provides reason as to why everyone has their place in the story, which makes their presence feel essential and why they are all so memorable. In my experience ensemble casts often feel like directors casting a series of friends and actors they’ve always wanted to work with, and the final picture ends up feeling as if it's full of cameos that distract from the subject matter. While you’re definitely aware you’re watching Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux and so on, their roles are so sparing nothing feels superfluous. The cast is stacked, but every instance of a well known actor cropping up feels totally motivated.

I think there are two approaches taken when writing a story. Either your story is there to serve the characters, or the characters serve the larger story. Usually I’ll always side with films that take the former approach, but in this instance I feel like neither can exist without the other, with the scale and amount of detail they both possess. They are inseparable. You could give this story to another director and the final picture wouldn’t remotely resemble what we have here. Obviously you could say the same for many films, but the way every detail of this film was specifically crafted to create this one perfect puzzle that has zero flaws makes it unlike anything else.

Conclusion

The ability to bring all of these ideas to life, while weaving an incredibly engaging story with unforgettable characters, and in a style so tactile and distinct, Anderson has crafted a masterpiece. I can’t imagine this film existing without a single key player missing. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography I honestly struggle to find the words to describe. Alexandre Desplat’s score which brings an energy and life that couldn’t be found anywhere else. The scale of the makeup and costumes feels so authentic, and especially impressive given the amount of ground the film covers. The editing has to be so precise so the momentum isn’t lost but you don’t get lost in the series of events. An ensemble piece in its cast, but also in the production.

The most impressive thing about this is that it’s a meta piece about storytelling disguised as an old fashioned farce. You easily become wrapped up in the mystery and tension of the central plot, as it plays out almost like a film from the Golden Age of Cinema with the 4:3 aspect ratio, snappy dialogue, with staging and blocking that looks like it belongs in a theatre. It’s a grand illusion that has a payoff that hits far deeper than you could expect.

Ultimately my takeaways from the film are this. Life is fleeting. To not make the most of it, whether it’s to live your best life or work towards something greater, would be a mistake. It personifies a drive to work towards goals and personal passions, while taking whatever is thrown at you and carrying on. The meaning can be whatever you want it to be. Mendel has dedicated his life to baking. Henkels, the chief inspector of the local police. Gustave, a concierge. Like the pacing of this film, life can feel like it’s running at a mile a minute but before you’re ready it could end, with no guarantee of closure. There is pain in nostalgia, but the experiences themselves make it worthwhile. Hold on to what you can.

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