There have been two movies in my lifetime which affected me so that I saw them multiple times in the theater: Life Is Beautiful and Genghis Blues. Along with those two masterful films I would add three which have a similar effect on me and formed my pantheon of five as a college student and young adult: Cinema Paradiso, Central Station and the original Willy Wonka. Few films have ever touched me quite like these. There have been a few: Spirit of the Beehive, Wild Strawberries and even Amelie, but I didn’t feel the same level of “ownership” in the stories–the same resonant investment in the storylines and mise-en-scène. But it has come time to add to the pantheon of five–a reservoir of naïveté which has remained untouched since at least the time of my reading James Monaco’s book on the French New Wave.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an unqualified masterpiece. It is not often that I even feel drawn to a movie theater whatsoever these days. It takes a lot to get me out of the house as far as cinema is concerned. My interest in this particular film owes to a job which I recently secured and ultimately quit (within a week or so) at an old, old hotel in San Antonio, TX. I had initially intended to see the film ostensibly for “research,” but when I finally saw it (after quitting my brief stint as a hotelier) it took on a different and immensely significant meaning for me.
I don’t want to spoil the plot or ending, so I will refrain from giving away too much info concerning either. I will, however, say right up front that the secret star of this film is Saoirse Ronan. She is the Anna Karina of this movie and she enabled Wes Anderson to make a truly transcendent picture. Ralph Fiennes is magnificent as Monsieur Gustave H., but it is Ronan as Agatha who embodies the film in such a way that I can only compare to Poe’s story The Oval Portrait (which played such a large role in Godard’s Vivre sa vie). The movie really gets going in earnest when Anderson goes to a magical close-up of Agatha (Ronan) on a merry-go-round. It is from the POV of her beau Zero (Tony Revolori) and its weightless, gossamer delicacy sets the stage for what will become (throughout the remainder of the movie) Wes Anderson’s best film to date.
Leave it to Anderson to give the beautiful, chaste Agatha a huge birthmark the shape of Mexico on the side of her cheek. Perhaps it was a nod to Gorbachev, but the effect is such that the beautiful Ronan becomes even more adorable and perfect by way of her imperfections. Indeed, it is when she is covered in flour at her job baking pastries that she reaches her highest peak of sublime cinematic presence. Even in her “mug shot” (which figures into the plot), she exudes mystery and imagination in her smile-less stare.
The red-headed, fair-skinned Ronan is part of a color scheme on the part of Anderson which includes powder-blue uniforms and cotton-candy-pink pastry boxes. Even The Grand Budapest Hotel itself is pink…like a giant pastry or gingerbread house (indeed, it is a model…a miniature…a favorite directorial device of Anderson).
But make no mistake, the royal-purple-clad gents whose acting makes this the coup that it is are Fiennes and Revolori. To call it a “buddy flick” would be doing the entire creation a grave injustice. Perhaps it is a comedy of manners? Or perhaps sui generis. Anderson’s “tricks” have never been employed to such successful effect until this film. It is as if all his prior attempts were quite good practice runs at making this film.
Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe are integral to the fabric of this sentimental, yet razor-sharp tapestry. Anderson manages to draw from so many influences (I seemed to notice Tati) such that the piece as a whole avoids being a puppy dogs and ice cream affair. Goldblum and Dafoe play out a sub-plot of sorts (in terms of filmic references) which hints very strongly at Hitchcock. It is just this dash of bitter verismo which holds the confection together and makes it truly delicious.
The story (not to mention the dialogue) would do a writer such as Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest) proud. Monsieur Gustave is infinitely quotable and his character bears a striking resemblance to Cary Grant in terms of mannerisms. It is as if Roger Thornhill somehow ended up in the maze that is Tati’s Playtime. Indeed, Gustave H. is a man on the run (just as Grant’s character in NXNW). And as per the Hitchcock motif of “the wrong man,” Gustave is, of course, innocent.
But the truly remarkable thing about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the expansive, somewhat metaphorical love story it encapsulates. Wes Anderson succeeds in channeling not only Truffaut, but Bergman (particularly Ingmar’s bittersweet Wild Strawberries). The overall narrative device of a recounting (Zero as an old man) and the framing of impressionable literary admiration (the student reading the “fictional novel” at beginning and end afore the canonical author’s statue) allow the film to operate on several levels simultaneously. The viewer is invited to hop on board the elevator at any floor and draw meaning from any of the many strata. It is like a cake–a fine, layered pastry from the old world.
There is indeed an air of panache which wafts through the illustrious halls represented in this film. It is, in some ways, a fairy tale and a morality play. Do the right thing and you might just end up with Snow White. And you might, with extraordinary integrity and compassion, get to have your cake and eat it too.