“Times have changed.”
So says Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) to Young Writer (Jude Law) as he luxuriates in the baths of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Except luxury is now in short supply; once a thriving symbol of opulence, the Grand Budapest Hotel is no longer so grand (and it’s not even in Budapest; the film is set in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka, not Hungary). Decades from then, the Grand Budapest Hotel will only be a memory, recorded in a book to be read amongst the tombs of a grey cemetery.
Times have changed. They always have, and they always will. The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest masterpiece from auteur Wes Anderson, uses a nested narrative structure to explore different eras. From our present – where “The Grand Budapest Hotel” by Author (now played by Tom Wilkinson) is the only record of said hotel – through to the sixties where it languishes in decrepitude, and finally back to the early thirties, where the hotel is at its prime under the leadership of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who’s just taken a new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) named Zero under his wing. As we travel through each era, the aspect ratio shifts accordingly, finally narrowing to the classic 4:3 ratio in 1932.
Anderson depicts the different time periods of The Grand Budapest Hotel with a combination of romanticism and realism. He has a great deal of fondness for the sumptuous excess of decades past, but is clear-eyed about the problematic layers of privilege beneath it. This film represents perhaps the best marriage of form and function of Anderson’s work; his whimsical tone is perfectly suited to the ‘30s story, given it is being retold from the perspective of a young boy, while the tight framing of this era lends a sense of chaos and claustrophobia to Anderson’s trademark symmetrical mise-en-scène. Not only does the restriction encourage the director to innovate (this article from Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell is an excellent encapsulation of such innovations), the tightness of the frame reflects the rising tide of fascism and war.
That fascism is personified by the black-clad family of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). One of Gustave’s many aging paramours, when she passes away and a question mark hangs over her considerable estate, eldest son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) acts swiftly and mercilessly to secure his inheritance. Gustave is framed for murder while the intimidating Jopling (Willem Dafoe) silences any opposition to the claim. The film transforms into a kind of caper film as Gustave recruits the assistance of Zero to clear his name, however it’s a substantially more violent film than you might come to expect from Anderson. Yes, there’s the action scenes quirkily achieved in miniature and that irrepressible sense of whimsy, but the spectre of fascism and the brutality of war hangs over it all.
There’s a lot to love about The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a beautiful film, like a finely-detailed diorama rendered with loving care, but that beauty doesn’t preclude Anderson from layering the film with deep melancholy. The performances – from an astounding cast – are flawless. It’s funny and engaging and meaningful. The grandeur of the Grand Budapest Hotel might have faded, but The Grand Budapest Hotel’s magnificence remains.
This review was originally published at Cheated Hearts.