Print Edition: April 9, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel is fantastical and storybook, but also manages to pull off just the right amount of believability.
Set in Zubrowka, a Switzerland-like fictional European country, the movie leaps between the ‘30s, ‘60s, and ‘80s, between the height of old-world majesty to its inevitable neglect and dilapidation.
The movie is narrated by Zero, played by Tony Revolori, who recollects the happiest years of his life as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest. At the height of its splendor, the Grand Budapest looks a bit like an overly iced cake: pink, sugary, and decadent. Here we meet Monsieur Gustave, (Ralph Fiennes), for whom the blond, old, and insecure swoon. Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest, is both a suave con artist and the most genuine of friends; his sensibility and wit is such that any offences he may commit will be immediately forgiven by his audience.
We follow Zero and Monsieur Gustave through a whirlwind adventure that chases from the sewers of prison to the tops of snowy mountain summits. It begins with the obituary of one of Gustave’s many conquests: a wealthy woman in her ‘80s, dead by murder. Monsieur Gustave is left a priceless painting titled “Boy with Apple,” for which he fights for rightful ownership and to clear his name of suspicion amid plot twists and intrigue, pursued by the authorities and the brass knuckles of menacing hit man Jopling, played by Willem Defoe.
Swept along with a lively musical score by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox), the tale mourns the loss of old-world class and grandeur, as the war looms and Grand Budapest’s days of wealth and luxury fall into decay. The movie is inspired by the writings of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, from whose autobiography the movie could have easily taken its name: the World of Yesterday.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with the typical in storybook adventure: evil henchmen, bad guys with hearts of gold, double-crossing friends, secret societies, innocent romance, and the authority who ultimately knows right from wrong. Anderson introduces us to a litany of memorable characters — the brave and strong willed Agatha, Zero’s beloved, and the wise and true Deputy Kovacs, who pays for his loyalty.
Anderson gives us a movie that is filled with humour and sharp wit as well as a distinctive feeling of melancholy. Most of the characters know the bitterness of loneliness — Zero, as a refugee; Agatha, as an orphan; and Monsieur Gustave, whose conquests are many but whose true friends are few. The Grand Budapest was once a place of refuge from this isolation. It becomes a place of memories rather than life, and the audience is left with the sharp loneliness of passing time.