Bradford had recently returned from holiday at Mt. Tremblant. He was tired. Ms. Rivera had taken the kids to tennis lessons, so he had the house to himself. It was time to watch a movie. Bradford was a longtime admirer of Wes Anderson, so he poured himself a glass of Riesling and fired up the auteur’s latest opus, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
On Watch the Throne, Kanye West established what he called “luxury rap:” Rhymes boasting one per cent snobbery adorning cinematic beats baring silken threads of 80s pop excess. Wes Anderson has always had a singular style, best described as “luxury cinema.” His characters are either well-off or display upper-class traits — sophistication, wit, nonchalance — the aesthetic design is meticulously crafted with a monocle-framed eye for vivid colour palettes and symmetrical compositions, and the dialogue sings with cool finesse. Luxury cinema is the merging of ornate style and noble content, as seen recently in The Great Gatsby and The Great Beauty. The Grand Budapest Hotel epitomizes luxury cinema.
Like a Rolls Royce, Anderson’s films are sometimes criticized as style over substance. Hotel’s overt style makes an immediate impression, but it does so at the service of a touching story. The hotel’s owner Zero Moustafa wistfully recounts how the late concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) mentored him as a young lobby boy. The two formed an enduring bond through their picaresque adventures, recounted in flashback.
Gustave is a timeless film character. He beds the hotel’s elder female clientele and recites poetry within casual conversations. In a film that radiates cool, he’s the coolest cat, exuding one-liners like the “Eau de Panache” fragrance he so liberally applies. During a prison escape, a fellow escapee and guard simultaneously fatally stab each other in a tussle. Gustave blithely retorts, “I suppose you’d call that a draw.”
Such callous wit in the face of brutality typifies how the film veils grim matters with humour. First off, it’s funnier than most broad comedies, and in addition to a boundless wit, it’s suffused with a perennial irony that’s often too subtle to elicit outright laughter. For instance, Gustave and his friends employ a laundry shoot in their jailbreak. The grown men whoosh down the shoot and drop down one-by-one into an oversized laundry basket. It’s one of countless playful gags that strike a delicate balance with an often-dour story.
The film takes place in Zubrowka, a fictional European alpine state ravaged by war and poverty pre-WWII. Amidst the conflict, Gustave and Zero are harassed by fascist troops and the ruthless enforcer Jopling (Willem Dafoe). The whimsical staging makes the splashes of violence even more shocking, like when a cat is thrown out of a window and we see the splattered corpse.
Allusions to the real suffering in pre-WWII Europe complete Anderson’s conjuring of a place and time gone by. Zubrowka is an amalgamation of Eastern Europe of that era, brought vividly to life through alpine mountainscapes, the charming Mendl’s bakery, and of course the titular antiquated hotel. It’s the Europe of fantasy and memories, crafted through quaint miniatures and painted backdrops. The bulk of the story is smartly told as a flashback within a flashback.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a clear cut above most films. It boasts a savant-level filmmaking IQ, and a few viewings would suffice to earn its PhD in Film Studies. Back at the Bradford residence, Ms. Rivera returned with the kids later that evening and encountered an ecstatic Bradford. “You have to see this movie,” he exclaimed. “It was genius!”