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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

I had some time to kill before the Saturday evening showing of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that I attended, and so I swung by the coffee shop next door to the Spectrum.

“It’s been busy,” the barista told me. “And it’s Wes Anderson’s fault.”

Anderson is the whimsical auteur responsible for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and his movies are highly anticipated among a certain subset of moviegoers. The screening I attended was packed with people who had clearly seen his previous films, and were delighted to see Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson pop up in small roles. Because Anderson has such a devoted following, the stakes seem to get higher with each new release. Fans excitedly discuss whether the film is great or merely good; his detractors complain that his work is cartoonish, mannered and has no heart.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering whether Anderson will ever make a film as good as his animated adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a very good movie ... but it doesn’t surpass “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is Anderson’s most sprawling and multi-layered movie, a light-hearted, madcap caper that takes on some very serious topics: heartbreak, war, fascism, social class and the steady, inevitable decline of once-great institutions. It takes place in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka, and focuses on the relationship between two characters: M. Gustave (Ralphe Fiennes), the concierge at the Grand Budapest, and Zero, his faithful apprentice.

We first meet Zero as an adult played by F. Murray Abraham, when he tells a writer staying at the hotel (Jude Law) how he came to be its owner. We then flash back in time, and learn how young Zero (Tony Revolori) arrived at the hotel as a refugee after his entire family was murdered, and how M. Gustave enjoys bedding the elderly blonde women who stay at the Grand Budapest. M. Gustave’s predilection lands him in hot water when he’s framed for the murder of one of his wealthy guests (Tilda Swinton), and must escape prison and clear his name. Of course, he’s aided by his loyal protege.

At this point, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” becomes a raucous and intricate series of chases. The sets are so elaborate and meticulously constructed that I began to wonder how Anderson develops his films. Does he begin with characters and a story, or does he imagine the landscape and interiors first? Did the colorful train in “The Darjeeling Limited” come first, or did the hapless brothers and their estranged mother? Did the Tenanbaum family come first, or did Anderson start with the Salinger-like brownstone that the siblings grew up in? Did the children in “Moonrise Kingdom” come first, or did Anderson begin with a dreamlike vision of an island and lighthouse?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. But what seems clear is that Anderson’s elaborately constructed worlds are inextricably linked to his characters, and that they reflect the emotions and desires of the peculiar, often melancholy people who occupy his films. The flamboyant, well-groomed M. Gustave is as much a part of the hotel as the chandeliers and dumbwaiters, while Zero represents another side of the hotel, a less secure and vulnerable side.

Like almost all of Anderson’s films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a fable, but it’s an unusually dark one, filled with brutal killings and ominous hints of the rise of totalitarianism. Toward the end of the film, when banners with a deliberate resemblance to the Nazi SS flag are unveiled at the hotel, it becomes harder to laugh at the twists and turns of Anderson’s tale.

For some reason, many critics have focused on “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” beautiful, witty and inventive surfaces, rather than the film’s darker, more disturbing undercurrent. This is unfortunate, because the film’s haunting, lingering power is derived from the darker waters; I think the critic Sam Adams captures something essential about the film when he describes it as “a pastry-covered hammer” — “the cold and surprisingly powerful force beneath ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’s’ dazzling surface.” (You can read more here.)

Yes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a romp. But it’s a lot more than that. Unlike most Anderson films, “The Grand Budapest” does not end happily for everyone, and it does not, in the end, romanticize the past. It’s an odd and idiosyncratic little movie, which just makes its sting and depth of feeling all the more potent.

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