Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.”
It is interesting that two imaginative films have been released close together in time, each dealing with the period between World Wars One and Two, though set in very different countries and cultures, and certainly made in very different styles—writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated The Wind Rises, and the one we will immediately explore, The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson. Although using live actors, Hotel is just as whimsical as the carefully drawn Japanese film, maybe more so in that Anderson (with co-writer Hugo Guinnessscript), basing his story on the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zeig, sets his film in the fictional republic of Zubrowka where high up in the Alps the lavish Grand Budapest Hotel sits on a mountainside. It is a pink concoction, the playground of the wealthy who come from all over Europe to get away from everything. But I am getting ahead of the story.
The farcical script, in the form of a story within a story within a story, begins in 1985 when an author (Tom Wilkinson) visits the now faded hotel and relates his first visit in 1968 when he met a mysterious millionaire who resides in a dingy servants’ room rather than one of the suites. Now played by Jude Law, the author befriends the man, who turns out to be Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the present owner of the hotel. Over dinner he readily relates the long, complicated story of how long ago in the early 1930s on his first day as hotel lobby boy he was immediately taken in tow by the imperious concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), reputed to be the greatest concierge in all of Europe. Every tiny detail of the running of the hotel is attended to by Gustave, and the role of a lobby boy, he instructs Zero, is to be invisible while attending to every need and wish of a guest. Indeed, one must learn to anticipate the guest’s need even before the guest is aware of it.
The concierge himself specializes in attending to even the sexual needs of his elderly female guests. He is trying to calm the nerves of Madame G. (Tilda Swinton in heavy make-up), an elderly dowager with whom he has had a long intimate relationship. She is convinced that this will be her last visit to the hotel. Although the concierge (and lover) tries to reassure her, her fears turn out to be true. News is received of her death. Gustave, with Zero accompanying him, hastily journeys to Madame’s estate.
The relatives, many of them distant ones who had never paid the Madame much attention, are seated in rows of chairs in a large room waiting for the reading of the will. When the lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) enters and faces the crowd, he displays a bread box-sized trunk full of notes that indicated Madame G. had changed the original will—over 600 times.
The assemblage is startled that the Madame’s priceless Renaissance painting “The Boy With an Apple” has been bequeathed to a man they had never heard of. When the evil son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) demands to know who is the man, Gustave, who has been standing with Zero at the back of the room, says that it is he. The son’s leather-clad henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) punches both in the face, after which the pair leave, managing with the help of servants to sneak the painting out of the mansion. Back at the hotel, they hide it in the kitchen, and later Zero leaves instructions for finding it with the girl to whom he becomes engaged, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).
The police, led by captain Henckels (Edward Norton, come to arrest Gustave on the charge of murdering the dowager, and there follows one of those madcap chase sequences through the hallways and chambers of the hotel, so beloved by audiences of the slapstick farces of the 30s and 40s. Gustave winds up in prison, with Zero and his Agatha helping in his escape. She is a baker’s assistant, and so she manages to smuggle hammers, chisels, and files by concealing them in delicious looking pastries, being careful of course to divert the guards by showering them with goodies also. Another madcap chase scene takes place via sled and skis, our two heroes just behind Jopling hurtling down the snow-covered mountainside.
There are killings, rides on a train and even a cable car, and the solving of the murder, all harking back to the movies and detective stories of the past. The film is funny, and yet also pervaded by a wistful longing for a more elegant time. The film is a farce, and yet serious things—a strangulation, a beheading, and the severance of fingers—remind us of the darkness lurking just on the other side of laughter. Even the lovers are not permitted to “live happily ever after” we learn from the elderly Zero, whose loyalty to his mentor has led to his ownership of the hotel.
Zero’s personal history links it to Anderson’s previous quirky film Moonrise Kingdom. You might recall that in that film the young lover Sam was a misfit orphan in danger of being sent away from his Scout troop and back to a soulless institution that he knew would kill his spirit. Our new slightly older hero reveals to his mentor that he was an orphaned refugee from Turkey where his captors had tortured him. During all the shenanigans the rise of fascism is shown, with the fascist soldiers moving into Zubrowka, heralding the eminent outbreak of war. The insignia on the flags and uniforms will quickly remind you of those on Hitler’s brutally vicious SS troops.
The cameo appearances Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman as concierges who come to the aid of Gustave is another of the film’s delights. Ralph Fiennes more than rises to the occasion to play Gustave H., exhibiting unsuspected comic talent. Anderson’s film does not deal directly with “Inportant Issues,” but it is great fun. Many people of faith will be turned off by the sexual exploits of Gustave, but others of us will find ourselves rooting for him. In his own quirky way Gustave’s life has been dedicated to serving others, something not too far astray from the calling of Christians.