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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

"In history as in human life, regret does not bring back a lost moment and a thousand years will not recover something lost in a single hour." Stefan Zweig

There’s something to be said about using comedy to cope with truly horrific subject matter. At what point does the use of humor seem to undermine the gravity of a given situation? To be precise, when does it all stop being funny? The intermingling of humor and severity is one of the most difficult balancing acts to successfully pull off, and only a handful of filmmakers have mastered the feat; Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, the Coen Brothers, and of course, Wes Anderson.

The latter is no stranger to infusing a pervasive sense of melancholy into his whimsical settings, often underscoring a bizarre quip with a bitter sense of irony. In his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s as if the cult filmmaker has dialed up all of these idiosyncrasies to the nth degree. In other words, this may be the most chimerical yet conversely darkest of Anderson’s films. And that’s saying something.

The story itself is told through a refraction of gazes; a young girl in the present day reads a book written by a renowned, nameless Author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985. We see the Author in that year regale us with the details of the book in which he visits the titular hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1968 as a young man, this time played by Jude Law. The young writer is drawn to the enigmatic and elegiac owner of the hotel, Monsieur Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa agrees to tell the writer of how he came to be in possession of the hotel, and it is here the story begins proper in 1932. Detractors of Anderson’s films will sniff that this is merely an exercise in transposing meta-literary flourishes into a filmmaking aesthetic. And it is, but there’s also a purpose at work here.

For now, we meet the main concierge of the hotel, Monsieur Gustave H. He is played by Ralph Fiennes, that marvelous British actor who’s come to be known for the majority of his villainous roles, like Amon Goethe, Ramses, and, yes, Voldemort. Yet he’s shown, whenever given the rare chance, that he is more than capable of being a competent comic actor (see In Bruges or the Wallace & Gromit movie), and he’s finally given his chance to shine in this film. His Gustave is a charismatic, elegant gentleman who is equally brusque, vulgar, and impertinent. In short, it is arguably the finest melding of character and performance in an Anderson movie since Gene Hackman’s bravura turn in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Gustave takes young “Zero” Moustafa (Tony Revolori, a talented newcomer and excellent comic partner to Fiennes) under his wing as the chief lobby boy of the hotel as the concierge sees to the needs of his most distinguished guests, especially the geriatric ladies who take pleasure in his company (and then some). News of the sudden passing of one of his female companions, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable) prompts Gustave and Zero to attend the wake where her will is read and it is revealed that Gustave has inherited her most prized possession, a painting known as Boy with Apple. The revelation of the painting after Gustave sings of it’s virtues is hilariously anticlimactic.

Yet this doesn’t sit well with Madame D.’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody, looking like a monstrous bird from a Tim Burton movie), and he orchestrates a nefarious plot to frame Gustave for the murder of Madame D. The majority of the rest of the film is a romp of a caper with our two heroes out to prove Gustave’s innocence. There are an assortment of allies and adversaries, trials and tribulations, all delivered with Anderson’s whimsy and wit. Oddly enough, the film is of a piece with his animated masterpiece Fantastic Mr. Fox in it’s madcap pacing and even some of it’s casting (Willem Dafoe plays a delightfully creepy henchman). In fact, it is the hectic atmosphere that almost threatens to derail the film in certain portions, and even still there are characters I wish were given more attention, particularly Edward Norton as an officer whose conflicted morality is manipulated by forces of darkness, and Saoirse Ronan as the love interest to Zero. And I haven’t even mentioned the handful of actors who are in the film for a few fleeting moments.

Yet The Grand Budapest Hotel ultimately succeeds, not just as an entertaining entry in Anderson’s oeuvre, but also as a comedy with a startling emotional heft. Though never mentioned by name, the specter of Hitler and the Third Reich lingers over the characters. Even the sporadic acts of violence, which have been present in all of Anderson’s films, seem more brutal and sinister here. Like Lubitsch’s classic To Be or Not to Be, we remain constantly aware of the insidious presence of evil and barbarism that threatens to destroy any and all vestiges of civilization while also laughing at the expense of the most monstrous villains. Anderson’s film, however, doesn’t have as happy an ending.

One last note, albeit an important one: the film is dedicated to Stefan Zweig, one of the most revered 20th Century European writers who fled Austria in 1934 after Hitler’s rise to power. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942 in despair over the future of human civilization, and his works remained relatively unknown in the United States until a few years ago. Now Anderson has made a film about the legacy of a good human transcending the ages through the works and words of others. In the end, behind the artifice and the whimsy, is a sincere tribute to a man who lost so much of what he once knew, regardless of what he did to prevent it from disappearing. The loss is acutely felt, and all that once was has passed into the ether of time. Yet the very knowledge that it existed must be some kind of a minor victory.

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