After a startlingly strong start to the awards season, I decided it was time to revisit one of the year's earliest hits "The Grand Budapest Hotel". When I watched the film this past summer, I never imagined it would have such staying power in the "year's best" conversation. Now, several months later, it's clear that Wes Anderson's latest curio is headed for the Oscar race in a big way.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" follows the exploits of a concierge named Gustave H. who oversees the operations of the titular hotel. He's a popular man, especially with the hotel's older female guests. One of them is a Madame D., who abruptly passes early on in the film. Determined to understanding the circumstances surrounding her death, Gustave goes to her wake with his new lobby boy in tow. There he learns that she has bequeathed him a precious painting. This news unleashes outrage within the family, resulting in a wild screwball adventure involving a wealth of eccentric characters.
Upon a first look, my initial response to this film was one of respectful admiration rather than outright enthusiasm. I've always had a complicated relationship to Wes Anderson's work - save for "The Royal Tenenbaums" - as his schtick often fails to connect with me on an emotional level. Such was the feeling again with "The Grand Budapest Hotel", as I was unable to warm to its conscious artifice as well as a plot that I found ultimately tiring.
This second time around however, I found it to be a much more enjoyable experience. Quite unusually, the DVD screener version seemed to give me a better appreciation for the film's exemplary craft, moreso than on the big screen. This is a dense, fast-paced film and if you're not immersed in the experience, you're likely to get lost in its meticulously designed world. Its madcap plot is constantly moving and is rich in dialogue.
What I noticed from this condensed perspective were all the incredible little details. For example, Alexander Desplat's buoyant score that sets the film's energetic atmosphere. Also the bright colour palette, from those pink Mendl's pastry boxes to that red elevator. On top of that, each image is precisely framed as if every shot were a "money shot". The production design and cinematography are truly top-notch. Likewise, the costumes are exquisite and the makeup and hairstyling add so much character.
Indeed, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is film that is all about character - including the charming hotel itself and the extensive troupe of actors. Many of Anderson's usual players are back (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) but even more impressive are the less obvious roles, like Tilda Swinton as a wealthy lady well past her prime (the pivotal Madame D.) or relative newcomer Tony Revolori as the lobby boy. You wouldn't immediately think of some of these actors in their roles, but after seeing the film you won't be able to envision anyone else.
This is easily one of the best cast films of the year and this is never more evident than in Ralph Fiennes' lead performance as Gustave H. Though known more for his dramatic work, Fiennes is perfect in this comedic role, fully inhabiting the role with his impeccable line delivery and elegant carriage. It's a performance that allows him to let loose too, as he sinks his teeth into some of that deliciously foul language that was so memorable in "In Bruges". Fiennes is a pure delight in this film and it seems like Anderson is particularly fond of this character too. The film truly comes alive whenever he's on screen (everything surrounding the prison break is genius). When he - or Revolori for that matter - isn't the focus, I often found my interest waning.
As such, I still struggle to find the deeper connection that it attempts to foster through its narrative style (a single narrator reminiscing about the past). For a film with such mature elements (violence, tragedy, sex, explicit language) it's disappointingly lightweight when it comes to engaging with anything resembling thematic or emotional depth.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is therefore an enjoyable film that I remain unable to fully embrace. However, when you isolate all the pieces of this puzzle, it is without a doubt one of the finest filmmaking efforts of 2014. It's like the loveliest storybook come to life.
As I mentioned earlier, this film will certainly be in the Oscar mix. Those craft elements will surely garner much respect. I therefore expect the film to be nominated for Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and with lesser confidence, I also see potential nods for Best Cinematography and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. At the moment, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay seem like sure things, while Best Director seems like a strong possibility too. In a less competitive year, Ralph Fiennes would surely be a top contender for Best Actor, but it's going to be a close race to find his way in. The big day (Oscar nominations) is fast approaching though, so it won't be long before realize just how beloved this film is within the industry.