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Some artists are drawn to beginnings, to the spirited waters of hope, apprehension and expectation. Other artists are drawn to endings, to where the stream peters out, a hollow foggy with nostalgia, wistfulness and what the Japanese call mono-no-aware. Filmmaker Wes Anderson is an end-watcher. His new film, and one of his best, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about the walking dead. And it couldn't be more lively.
The titular hotel is as elaborate as a wedding cake, with a pink fondant exterior dripping with white trim, perched on a side of a mountain in the fictional — but barely fictional — Eastern European state of Zubrowka. The hotel, one assumes, was built to cater to a cosmopolitan class that would eventually be uprooted and decimated by the second World War and then finally vanquished by the falling of the Iron Curtain.
After the war, the opulent buildings became ugly apparatchik resorts. Hotels such as these, the grand dames, existed in barren corrupt desolation for the duration of the USSR. When the curtain lifted, it did so on dozens of rundown properties like the Hotel Carlton in Bratislava, Astoria Hotel in Budapest, and the Hotel Borse in Gorlitz, Poland, where the movie was filmed.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is both the set and the heart of the film. To dismiss it just as a set would be unfair to Anderson's worldview wherein the set is often more important than the players on it. In this case, the hotel is the treasure of the film, the patrimony around which all characters circle to fiercely protect. For it is not just a collection of rooms but a vestige of the evaporated past.
In a very Andersonian conceit, the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel unfolds as a story of a story of a story, a mise-en-abyme of narration. But the meat layer of this temporal sandwich unfolds over the course of a long dinner in the 1960's, when the Grand Budapest Hotel was largely deserted and retrofitted in totalitarian oranges.
Young Writer (Jude Law, who I can't wait to see as Dom Hemingway), a young English writer, dines with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, who is the best), the owner of the hotel. The two share a meal that consists, in part of, skeletal roasted duck, skull still staring with its terrifying death grin. They wash it down with champagne of unknown (to me) but presumably fancy provenance, borne by overly formal waiters.
Anderson is meticulous about his mise-en-scene. One of the chief pleasures of the film is the visual ephemera of this made-up nation, from the passports to the police reports. But one of the most nourishing elements is the food. Anderson fills the hotel’s plates with a subgenre of fancy banquet cuisine, pitch perfect of a Socialist Bloc Eastern European take on Western Opulence. Take a look at this menu (at right), created by the ingenious lead graphic designer Annie Atkins.
But more than the actual dishes, Anderson captures in his stylish way the desolation angles of a dining room meant for many more being filled by so few. It’s as sad as the empty dance card of a once attractive spinster. Part of the touching brilliance of the movie is in the juxtaposition of the latter disrepair of the former glory. No dining room is as sad as an empty one.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has two guardians who have watched over the aching parabola of its lifetime. During its heyday, the beating heart of the hotel is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who manages to be both dandified and virile. M. Gustave is the dashing General Manager. He presides not only over the front- and back-of-house, delivering lectures to the kitchen staff, but also the boudoirs of the old biddies he shtups.
One of his paramours, Madame D. (a very old looking Tilda Swinton), passes away, thus setting up the main action of the movie: M. Gustave's effort to clear his name, which has been implicated in her murder.
M. Gustave's sidekick and companion in all of this is Zero Moustafa (the younger version of whom is played by Anaheim, CA-born Tony Revolari, the older version is F. Murray Abraham), as a boy a wide-eyed refugee and as a old man slightly Mosaic. The movie is primarily a platonic love story between M. Gustave and his protege but includes elements of a caper flick (including one scene in which I've never been more interested in watching the pectoral muscles of Harvey Keitel twitch) and a romantic comedy.
Young Zero falls in love with the unspeakably beautiful pastry apprentice named Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who toils away with a birthmark the shape of Mexico on her cheek, at a nearby pastry shop called Mendl's. Besides skeletal duck, pastries are the other culinary mainstay in the film.
Presumably impoverished, Agatha lives at Mendl's, in a shabby bed in the back room. She spends her days dusted in flour, making elaborate confections like a courtesan au chocolate. Like everything in this Andersonian universe, her pastries are exceedingly fussy. Eclairs filled with creme, brightly colored tarts with Buzby Berkley-like configurations wrought in spun sugar. The shop looks like the final evaluation for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. The pastries impossibly pretty, but they do come with helpful YouTube recipes courtesy the German baker who developed them, the very Wes Andersonian-named Anemone Müller-Grossmann:
Video: How to Make a Courtesan au Chocolat
More than just precious food porn, the pastries serve as a hopeful counterpoint to the crushing heavy cuisine of the Grand Budapest Hotel. The clafoutis are great but they aren't grand, with all the asphyxiating gravitas the word brings. They are sweet just as the love of Zero and Agatha is sweet. They are sweet endings but they also signify new beginnings.
It is this balancing act between things beginning and things ending that makes the film so fulfilling, so affecting and so true. The story is about the impossibility of recovering the past and yet finding life even in the decay. That's the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel, gradually crumbling as time moves on. It's the story of M. Gustave, who clung to the pre-war elegance of Europe until it was all gone. [There's a good argument, often made, that the World War I and World War II were essentially one long conflict so even in those interwar years, during which the M. Gustave was at the peak of his powers, the thing he was protecting was already dead.] For M. Moustafa, it's the memory of Agatha. For the narrator, young writer turned old, it's the stories of them all.
Most importantly, I think, it's also the story of Wes Anderson himself. Towards the end of the film, old man Mr. Moustafa reflects that M. Gustave was "a man out of time even in his own era." And it is hard not to think that in some way, Wes Anderson isn't also singing of himself. For Wes Anderson is a refugee from the imaginary past just as the world from which the real-life Grand Budapest Hotels is so past it might have well have been imaginary. But even in the decline, Anderson finds something sweet to savor.
Rating: 5/5 stars