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Frederica Mathewes-Green


The Grand Budapest Hotel

A seductive treat.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is surely the most Wes-Andersony of all the Wes Anderson movies, and if you've never seen a Wes Anderson movie, well, I don't know what to tell you. Try this: of all contemporary filmmakers, Anderson is the one most likely to provoke reviewers to use the words "fey" and "twee."

Anderson's films are a feast for the eyes, carefully color-coordinated, minutely arranged, and crammed with whimsical details. The style could be called Millionaire's Daughter's Dollhouse. Through these sets walk oddball characters who grapple with their situations in amusingly misguided ways. They come up against characters who are thoroughly egotistic, though amusingly oblivious about it, and other characters who remain amusingly deadpan no matter what chaos ensues around them. There's plenty of perfectly orchestrated amusement in these films, but not much heart. Characters seem almost like extensions of the scenery—bits of set dressing that just happen to walk about. Stories aren't told in a way that gathers momentum, but rather in a droll, aloof manner, cushioned with empty air.

As much as I admire the aesthetic achievement of Anderson's films (for example, The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001, and Moonrise Kingdom, 2012), I find them only sporadically engaging. He's the director least likely to provoke reviewers to use the words "emotionally satisfying."

As the lights dimmed for a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was already rehearsing lines for a critical review. But before long I noticed something. I was smiling. Sometimes I was even laughing. The enjoyment of penning a negative review was being crowded out by enjoyment of the movie itself. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the most visually exquisite of all Anderson's films, but, surprisingly, it's also the most accessible.

The main character is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the dazzling concierge of the hotel, itself an equally dazzling pink-tinted confection high in the mountains of Zubrowka. (A title card tells us that it lies at the eastern edge of Europe, and was "once the seat of an empire.") The year is 1932, when the hotel was a fashionable destination during the lull between the world wars.

We meet M. Gustave on the day a new Lobby Boy has been employed, and this arrival gives an opportunity for exposition. As M. Gustave strides through the sumptuous lobby, approving menus and critiquing flower arrangements, he imparts wisdom like "Rudeness is fear" (so a rude guest needs reassurance). The Boy-in-Training is a teen named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), and he wears a purple uniform and a cap embroidered in gold, "LOBBY BOY." He has a pencil-thin moustache that he applies with a pencil. M. Gustave is impeccable in a purple jacket and lavender vest, moving in a cloud of L'Air de Panache. (Zero says in voiceover, "He was the most liberally perfumed man I have ever encountered.") When Zero, M. Gustave, and a lanky purple-uniformed elevator operator are lined up side-by-side in a shiny red elevator, it's a sample of the visual delight Anderson is known for.

M. Gustave is dapper, efficient, and has a gift for persuasively elegant speech, but there's something else we need to know: he's a ladies' man. It's true, his private tastes may run more broadly; when a character says, "We think you're a real straight fellow," he responds, "Well, I've never been accused of that before, but I appreciate the sentiment." But such preferences haven't stopped him from making a side career out of tending to lady guests who are wealthy, blonde, and well up in years. He caps a flowery description of a paramour with blunt words:

[M. Gustave] She was dynamite in the sack, by the way.
[Zero] She was eighty-four.
[M. Gustave] Eh. I've had older.

(This might be a good place to note that The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R for Language, Some Sexual Content, and Violence. There are only small amounts of the latter two, but the f-word abounds.)

That 84-year-old playgirl, Madame C.V. Desgoffe und Taxis, is portrayed by fiftysomething Tilda Swinton. Though (by my guess) her total onscreen time is less than two minutes, she's been given a makeover so meticulous, from Dairy Queen hairdo to saggy red mouth, that you wish the camera would linger and let us take it in. In this film, tantalizing images are always being whisked out of sight before we've had enough time to savor them. As the showbiz adage goes: Always leave them wanting more.

When M. Gustave learns that Madame D. has died, he and Zero rush to the palace. Numerous family members and hangers-on have turned up for the reading of the will, and when the executor reveals that Madame D. has given M. Gustave her most valuable possession, a Renaissance painting, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) erupts in rage.

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