“The Grand Budapest Hotel”… Dial W for whimsy

Posted on July 26, 2014


Spoilers ahead…

Just to get the formalities out of the way, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a shaggy dog story – rather, a shaggy drawing story. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the titular establishment, inherits a priceless painting that goes by the name of… Boy with Apple, which sounds like someone’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Girl with a Pearl Earring. That someone, of course, is the director Wes Anderson, whose every frame is varnished with drollery. If the word “droll” didn’t exist, it would need to be minted for the Wes Anderson oeuvre. Just about everything is fair game – from a defenestrated Persian cat to a decapitated head in a laundry basket (which sounds like it should be the subject of its own painting). Like the Coens, Anderson sees jokes where we least expect them. A CPR procedure. The forensic analysis of a corpse with missing fingers. Diseases named “scribe’s fever” and “Persian grippe.” Nosebleeds.

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But none of this comes across as misanthropic. So deft is Anderson’s touch that we – at least, those of us who are fans – laugh affectionately instead of recoiling with horror. Midway through the film, we get a scene that could serve as a metaphor for why we give Anderson a free pass. A prison guard is inspecting goods being delivered to inmates. First up is a loaf of bread. He slices it with a knife to ensure that it’s just a loaf of bread. Then comes a block of cheese. He pokes and prods. Next, a daintily beribboned box of pastries. He opens it, takes a look at the artisanal contents, exquisitely coloured and crafted, looking just so – it’d be a shame to eat these things, let alone slice and dice them up. He moves on to the next item. Fans treat Anderson’s films the same way. While we may pick apart the work of other filmmakers for imagined crimes, we do not have the heart to take a knife to his scrumptious work.

And he rewards our indulgence with a bounty of riches – from the first frame, where a girl visits a cemetery. (The entrance, naturally, is exactly at the centre of the screen; it wouldn’t be an Anderson film without these OCD-induced symmetries.) She walks up to a statue – it’s a bust, really, of an author whom the film calls… Author. And below this bust are keys, like you’d find behind the reception desk in a hotel. And slowly the story is unlocked. The girl holds a book by Author. We segue to a flashback with the Author (Tom Wilkinson), who leads us to another flashback that features him as a young man (Jude Law), who leads us to a further flashback – about the shadow of some kind of Nazism falling over Gustave H and his May-December bromance with the young lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori). We hear that name and purr with pleasure, awaiting the comic gold Anderson will mine from it – sure enough, Gustave H interviews Zero and finds out that his education is… zero, his experience is… zero. But the real punch line arrives when Zero falls for Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, carrying a wine-spill birthmark on her face that reminded me of the boy in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair). Her name is no accident. It had to begin with an “A” – only then would Zero’s note to her, in a book of romantic poetry, end with the dedication “From Z to A.”

If that sounds like a spoiler, do not frown – there’s plenty more where that came from. But what’s new about Zero – in the Anderson universe – is that he’s a person of colour. He isn’t like the brightly turbaned Sikh we see in a few frames, or the locals in The Darjeeling Limited – he isn’t exotic wallpaper. He’s one of the leads. And his tragic backstory – though necessarily abbreviated (this trifle of a film cannot take more) – shocks Gustave H out of his privileged cocoon of perfume and poetry, which, really, is Anderson’s cocoon, filled with people with first-world problems. This, perhaps, explains the end-of-an-era wistfulness and the copious bloodshed, at least for this filmmaker. Even that Persian cat leaves behind a stain.

But the predominant mood is still Andersonian, so the blood doesn’t quite stick to the screen. This is a whimsical comedy, after all – though, at some point, it morphs into a Hitchcockian innocent-man-on-the-run thriller. The fun, in these latter portions, comes from seeing classic Hitchcockian scenarios (there’s even an “I Confess” scene) refracted through Anderson’s prism. The prison escape is funny, the climatic shootout even funnier, and the funniest thing is watching the superlative cast keep a straight face throughout. The Anderson repertory company is present in full force (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson), but it’s the newcomers that stand out – Revolori, Fiennes (who’s marvelously energetic), Tilda Swinton as an eccentric grande dame (she shares a finger-in-a-socket hairdo with her screen son), and especially Williem Dafoe, as an assassin with a prognathic jaw and a fondness for leather fashions – he comes off like Dracula playing a dapper gangster. As I said, there will be blood.


* shaggy dog story = see here
* The End of the Affair = see here
* The Darjeeling Limited = see here
* centre of the screen = see here
* Andersonian = see here
* I Confess = see here

Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: English