Throughout his career, Wes Anderson has steadily developed and honed his distinctive voice as an accomplished visual stylist and sly satirist in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch. With “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson created his most fully realized portrait yet about the follies and joys of the human condition. With its baroque mise-en-scene and perfect mixture of drama and comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” recalls an earlier time in cinema when a heightened sense of sophistication intermingled seamlessly with slap stick humor and inspired zaniness. And yet through all the joie de vivre of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” there is an increasing feeling of melancholy and yearning for a bygone period when human nature elevated itself beyond the barbarity of modern times.

Like many of Anderson’s films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” features an eclectic cast of characters who function as a sort of surrogate dysfunctional family. The film centers on the rise and fall of the once glorious Grand Budapest Hotel, located in an imaginary European country during the early 1930s. Living and working in this hotel are the two main characters of the film, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s concierge who spends his spare time seducing older, wealthy women, and Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham as the elder Moustafa, and Tony Revolori as younger Zero), the lobby boy who later gains a more prominent position in the hotel. Gustave and Zero form an alternatively dysfunctional and endearing sort of father-son relationship with each other. After one of Gustave’s lovers passes away, she bequeaths in her will a priceless painting to Gustave, setting off in motion a series of wild events involving secret societies, murder, imprisonment, and many other typical Anderson complications.

What makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” such a fascinating and accomplished film is Anderson’s complete mastery over the many layered threads of narrative construction. The film alternates seamlessly between different time periods, from modern day Europe, to the main 1930s setting of Anderson’s imaginary European country, and into the more drab late 1960s and 1980s of the same location. Within each of these time periods, Anderson also employs various film stock ratios, using 2.35:1 ratio for the modern day and 1960s scenes, the Academy ratio of 4:3 for the 1930s scenes, and 1:85:1 ratio for the 1980s scenes. Each of these ratios are used to replicate the respective film stock used for the corresponding time periods “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is set in. Most notably, the Academy ratio of the 1930s is used to pay homage to the urbane comedy of manners films of Ernst Lubitsch, like “Design for Living,” “Trouble in Paradise,” and “Ninotchka,” as well as the classic slapstick comedies of the Marx Bros. Like the protagonists of Lubitsch’s films who are often impoverished swindlers masquerading as members of the bourgeois class, Gustave lives in a small, nondescript room in the Grand Budapest Hotel, and yet he spends his time deceiving older, affluent women into funding his forays into a seemingly wealthy lifestyle. The slapstick elements of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are cleverly revealed in many of Anderson’s complex set pieces, highlighted by an exhilarating prison escape sequence that would have made Rube Goldberg proud.

One accusation often lobbied towards Anderson’s films is that his elaborate attention to set design and detail often leaves the actors feeling stiff and theatrical. This was most noticeable in “The Royal Tennenbaums,” which was Anderson’s dress rehearsal for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” While the mise-en-scene of “The Royal Tennenbaums” was executed to perfection, it often left the actors feeling like puppets that weren’t quite brought fully to life. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was an improvement over “The Royal Tennenbaums’” rigid performances, but at times even that film fell into puppet theater territory. Maybe this is why Anderson’s animated films, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” felt much more naturalistic. In these animated films, Anderson had full control over every little detail of his animated characters, as opposed to trying to elicit his desired performances from human actors who may not be fully privy to his vision.

However, with “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the acting finally feels completely natural and in synch with Anderson’s unique sensibility. Every turn of phrase and speech tic of the actors feels perfectly in tune with the equally idiosyncratic set design, color scheme, and overall mise-en-scene of each of Anderson’s sequences. We are no longer seeing actors being awkwardly pulled by Anderson’s puppet strings, instead each performance feels seamlessly aligned with the universal vision of the film. A great example of this is the seamlessly choreographed Society of the Crossed Keys sequence, in which Anderson uncovers each member of the film’s secret society through an impeccable blend of visual cues and exquisitely modulated performances.

Indeed, one can list scene after scene of masterfully constructed sequences in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which at times almost resembles a live-action animated film. Anderson even employs animation at some points, such as his introduction to the hotel near the film’s beginning, which we can clearly see is an elaborately designed scale model of a hotel. All of this visual eye candy would mean nothing if there was no deeper meaning behind it all, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is ultimately a yearning for decency and a simpler way of living, as the more brutal realities of society start to incringe upon Anderson’s almost Edenic paradise of the hotel.

As the film progresses, there are hints of darkness and cruelty, such as a shocking scene where a character gets his hand maimed, but through it all we delight in Anderson’s lovely recreation of a time period when a respect for humanity reigned. As “The Grand Budapest Hotel” reaches its ending, hints of fascism start to creep in as we see armed soldiers take over the hotel, and even threaten death and violence at one point. The celebratory mood of the 1930s is over, and with it the Grand Budapest Hotel starts to fall into ruin, until it’s just a drab shadow of itself by the 1960s. This is both an allegory for the degradation of society as a whole, and the natural growth from youthful idealism to the more realistic and grounded stage of adulthood. Zero is no longer the bright eyed bellboy he was in the 1930s, instead by the late 1960s he is a bearded, older man wandering the now empty halls of his once grand hotel, reflecting on more colorful and vibrant times. As Gustave himself says near the film’s end, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” For Anderson, as our society descends deeper into darkness and hopelessness, he makes films to point our way forward for toward a brighter, and hopefully more enlightened future.

  • Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel