It’s unusual for a movie released in the summer to have the legs necessary to pick up Oscar nominations in January. The last film to win Best Picture after being release before September was Gladiator. That’s one reason why it was unusual that The Grand Budapest Hotel tied with Birdman for the most Oscar nominations with nine. Another reason is it’s a comedy, and a true comedy hasn’t won Best Picture since Tom Jones back in the 1960s. It’s unlikely Grand Budapest will pull off a win for the top prize on Oscar night, but as Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.”
Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson has made a career out of telling stories that are both unusual and decidedly off-kilter. As attested to by Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his view of life skews toward an absurd realism. He’s one of the more idiosyncratic visual stylists working in films these days. While filmmakers often focus on camera angles for shots, Anderson’s angle is usually 90 degrees – taking the scene straight on – and in contrast to directors who’ll do gorgeous slow pans through scenes, Anderson will do whip pans up, down, or sideways to capture another view of the scene again straight on.
Anderson and story collaborator Hugo Guinness credit the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig as the inspiration for the film. Zweig was one of the most popular authors in the 1920s and 1930s, and his writings have been the source for almost 70 films according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com). Zweig’s books were old-fashioned in style and centered on the plot, but he’d also blend in revelations about the characters that were deep and transcended the style. Not surprisingly, Zweig was a good friend of another Austrian, Sigmund Freud. Along with novels, Zweig wrote biographies and memoirs, and his work was translated throughout the world. The rise of the Nazis forced Zweig, who was Jewish, into exile in England, then America, and finally Brazil. It was there that he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.
Anderson pays anonymous tribute to Zweig with the film’s prefaces, of which there are three. It begins with a girl in a European town walking up to a bust in a park that is simply labeled “Writer” and then opens up the book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The movie flashes back to the 1980s when the writer (played by Tom Wilkinson) is giving a talk about writing the book, leading to another flashback to the 1960s when the writer (now played by Jude Law) was staying at the Grand Budapest. He’s approached by the hotel owner, M. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who admires the writer’s work and wants to tell him the story of a most amazing man, the former concierge of the hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Anderson plays with the look of the film to match the flashbacks. For the present day and the 1980s, he uses the common film ratio today, 1.85:1, but when he goes to the 1960s, it changes to the wide-screen that was used for almost every movie at that time, with a ratio of 2.35:1. For the story of M. Gustave, Anderson uses the ratio of 1.37:1, which was the standard for movies in the 1930s.
What follows is a remarkable confection with thriller elements mixed in with a comedy of manners. Imagine a crime caper movie written by Oscar Wilde. In that day M. Mustafa was a refugee known as Zero (Tony Revolan) who takes a job as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest and comes under the influence of M. Gustave. Gustave is vain, shallow, avaricious, and entirely charming. Fiennes is wonderful in the role, carrying off some of the most outrageous lines with panache. When Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), an elderly client of the hotel, passes away unexpectedly, M. Gustave goes to her at once, with Zero in tow. The Madame has bequeathed a priceless painting to Gustave, but he realizes her son Dimitri (Adrien Brody) will try to cheat him out of it. Instead, Gustave takes the painting, with the help of Serge X. (Mathieu Amalric), Madame D.’s butler.
Soon afterward the police, commanded by Henckels (Edward Norton), arrive at the Grand Budapest with news that Serge has denounced Gustave as a murderer and then fled. With that the movie becomes a wild ride of prison escape, murderous frames, and chases as Gustave tries to clear his name. Along for the ride is Willem Dafoe as a deadpan killer, Jeff Goldblum as a lawyer and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hannah) as Zero’s love interest who helps save the day. Quite a few well-known actors make cameo appearances, among them Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman.
Anderson’s styling also carries over to the special effects, where he uses miniatures in the style of the 1930s rather than modern CGI. To give the feeling of the time and location, composer Alexandre Desplait’s score relies on balalaikas and other folk instruments. The score has been nominated for an Oscar, which means Desplait is competing against himself as well as others – he was also nominated for his score for The Imitation Game.
The movie is currently playing on HBO as well as streaming services, and will be out on video next week. It’s well worth a viewing.