Wes Anderson is the type of director who is unmistakable. His quirkiness as a filmmaker shows itself predominantly in his perfectly framed and balanced shots (setting his original visionary style), his over-the-top choreography (that more often than not adds humour) and his penchant for weaving intricate plots for a large ensemble of characters. I personally hold The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as my absolute favourite, but 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom stood out to me as well.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a young woman visiting the grave of a celebrated author, clutching his beloved memoir entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel in her arms. She sits down on a bench and begins to read. What unfolds from here is a story within a story within a story: the girl reads the retelling by the Author (Jude Law) of the actual story we’re about to follow, narrated to him by Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), whom he meets while paying a visit to The Grand Budapest Hotel. The story is one of love and war, poverty and honor, murder and pastries, hotel management and greed, but most of all it is one of friendship.
Zero Moustafa tells the tale of how he came to work as a lobbyboy at The Grand Budapest under the watchful eye of the hotel consierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) who, after a brief interview regarding Zero’s previous training and education, concludes that the knowledge Zero has of the duties involved with being a lobbyboy comes to the totalsum of zero. He is swayed in his decision to keep him or let him go when Zero’s answer to the final question is perfection. (Zero praises The Grand Budapest as the only place he could possibly wish to work.) This is the beginning of their friendship, one that will prove pivotal to them both.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a streak of the nostalgic about it. A lamentation hidden somewhere in its folds of the passing of an era when honor and the bond of a handshake was as reliable as a dinner jacket being worn after five o’clock. This notion is captured in the spirit of Monsieur Gustave as he stands up for Zero when the latter is threatened by possible exile, due to his immigrant status during wartime; but it is also visually established early on in the film with a shot of the grandness of the original hotel having been markedly changed by the influence of war and the forward march of time. The building goes from something not far from resembling an iced, pink wedding cake to being something closer to the visage of a square, concrete prison bunker.
Back to Monsieur Gustave. He, to this viewer, becomes a reflection of how times are unwilling to change, but ultimately must succumb.
He wishes to take the inheritence left to him by his friend and lover Madame D and leave the (fictional) Republic of Zubrowka, offering to take Zero with him as his employee and promising to make him his heir as Zero is much younger than he is and he himself does not expect to live long. With this choice Monsieur Gustave demonstrates a willingness to leave his pride and joy – his beloved hotel – behind. But as the hotel, much later in the film, becomes occupied by soldiers, ”a barracks” as Monsieur Gustave calls it, he is so disgusted he sadly vows to never set foot in the hotel again – giving the impression that he is willing to leave, but on his own terms and possibly with the idea of returning once the war is over.
All the while, in parallel with Monsieur Gustave, the hotel itself becomes a representative of the old versus the new, tickling you with the notion of the good old days versus the modern times. Through this it further offers a comment on how we treat our own history, how we reshape and restructure everything around us in order to make it fit with the ”now” rather than the ”then”, easily forgetting that the ”then” is what has ultimately shaped the ”now” and may hold more interest if left as was. But, no, we take history for granted and insist on nip-tucking our past to better suit the present.
We see early on in the film what nip-tucking has done to The Grand Budapest. The once proud hotel is a shadow of its former glory and you get the feeling that its gutted lobby – once so grand – is meant to dissuade you, the viewer, from wanting to linger. The hotel is close to ruin. Nothing works. It has a faithful clientel, but not many new customers. Zero (who indeed inherited the hotel from Monsieur Gustave) still loves it, but for what it was and not at all for what it is. This has a bittersweet tinge to it, to say the least, as Zero’s final attempt at salvaging Monsieur Gustave’s legacy through modernization has resulted in there being nothing in the hotel left that Monsieur Gustave himself would recognize and treasure.
I take with me this, then, from a piece of artistic achievment that had me laughing more than once and managed the tricky task of being both somber and uplifting at the same time: perhaps we can’t stop the change and perhaps there’s no real point in wanting to, but we can preserve what has come before and by doing so gain the opportunity to marvel at the similarities between our present and our past.