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An Austrian Jew who fled Europe during Hitler’s early rise to power, Stefan Zweig was among the most famous and acclaimed writers of his day. Rather than watch the Nazi desecration of the continent and its art and culture, Zweig took his own life in 1940 at the age of 60 while living in Rio de Janeiro.
Now largely forgotten, the author and his works are the spiritual inspiration for Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, a bittersweet comedy-drama about a man and a place fallen out of fashion in the 1930s.
The man is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and the place is where he’s employed as concierge, The Grand Budapest Hotel, an extravagant mountainous getaway located in the Austrian-like fictional Republic of Zubrowka.
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Written by Anderson and Hugo Guinness.
A Fox Searchlight release, playing at Franklin Park and Levis Commons.
Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence.
Running time: 100 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ★★★★½
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton.
We learn about Gustave and his exploits through a levels-deep narrative in which Zubrowka’s most famous author (Tom Wilkinson, essentially playing an older Zwieg), recounts to an unseen camera how he came to write his most famous work, The Grand Budapest Hotel, during the 1960s while staying at the nearly empty hotel, then decades into its twilight. Intoxicated and slightly obsessed by the hotel’s opulent wonders and regal accommodations, the author in his younger days (Jude Law) wonders why The Grand Budapest Hotel’s owner, Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), would willingly forfeit a fortune to keep alive this dying relic. Over dinner, Moustafa shares the story of Gustave, the hotel’s most famous employee.
Flamboyant, witty, and charming, Gustave is less erudite than he is practical and well read, one who quotes poems as if they were favorite movie lines and preaches employee etiquette to the hotel staff as dinner-time sermons.
Zero (Tony Revolori) is the young, impressionable bellboy Gustave takes under his wing to shape into his polished and dignified image. But Gustave’s devotions belong to The Grand Budapest, an affection so deep that he considers attending to the carnal needs of the hotel’s wealthy and considerably older female clientele part of his duty as concierge. Chief among his infrequent companions is Madame D. (the marvelous Tilda Swinton), a rich widow who visits the hotel and Gustave annually. She swoons at his sight, and it’s her murder and his inheritance of her priceless painting, Boy with Apple, that delivers the film’s winding plot as Gustave runs afoul of her greedy children, as well as Zubrowka officials and the police, and turns to Zero for help.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is chock-full of Anderson’s peculiar denizens, among them:
Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a young baker’s assistant with a birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, whom Zero falls in love. Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Madame D.’s greedy and powerful son, and Jopling (Willem Dafoe) his dangerous goon. There’s Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), an attorney and the executor of Madame D.’s will, who runs afoul of Dmitri. Henckels (Edward Norton), an inept government official who has a history with the hotel and Gustave. And Ludwig (Harvey Keitel), a shirtless inmate leading a prison escape.
These characters contribute in one facet or another to Gustave’s fate, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is less about the ensemble — excellent though it is — and more about the concierge and the bellboy who aspires to be him.
Fiennes delivers perhaps his best performance to date as the dashing and devilish anachronism who refuses to yield to the changing mores of a world soon to be at war. And Revolori, in his first major role, displays a level of talent beyond his experience in the important role of deadpan calm to Fiennes’s finicky and fussy storm. There’s a sweetness to their friendship, one that bridges the old world and the new. Examine this whimsical tale closer and there’s a familiar theme by Anderson, not unlike that of his first major film, Rushmore, in which two strangers, an adult and teenage boy, become like father and son, with the roles often reversed.
“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” Gustave says to protege. “Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant ... ” this is followed by an expletive in which the concierge essentially says to hell with it. While it’s a funny line in that it’s most unexpected, as with most Anderson dialogue, it’s also telling of something else: in this instance, Gustave’s resignation to the inevitable.
Anderson’s script is sharp and funny, and never bashful about pausing the laughs for such melancholic reflections, mostly to grieve the loss of a time and place, and occasionally the people. And the magnificent set design of the hotel is a character unto itself, much like the hotel in The Shining. though these ghosts of the pasts are far more friendly.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has Anderson’s brand-name hallmarks of quirky humor and colorful aesthetics. But it’s much more than that: It’s a film about the abrupt end to a way of life, and, for Zwieg, the graceful soul who would not continue without it.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.