To my mind, all of Wes Anderson’s films are masterpieces in the truest sense of that word. But his most recent creation, Grand Budapest Hotel, is, perhaps, his chef d’oeuvre.
Anderson’s eighth feature-length film, which opened in limited release last week, Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical, hilarious, and surprisingly touching tale laden with nostalgia for a world and way of life most of us (including the 44-year-old director himself) never have experienced.
Set in the fictional Eastern European mountain region known as the “Republic of Zubrowka,” the plot centers around the character and adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel, one of Europe’s palatial “grand hotels. Gustave is something of a dandy, a throwback to a bygone era even in his heyday of the 1930s on the cusp of World War II.
We learn Monsieur Gustave’s story in flashbacks told by Zero the “lobby boy,” portrayed as an older man by the inimitable F. Murray Abraham and as a very young man by the charming newcomer Tony Revolori, who describes his former mentor and friend as “the most liberally perfumed man I've ever met.”
The concierge’s signature scent is the florid “L’air de Panache,” dispensed with multiple squirts from a perfumery atomizer. It’s one of thousands of seemingly incidental details in Grand Budapest Hotel, that are, in fact, integral — the building blocks Anderson uses with characteristic virtuosity to create films that are unlike the work of any other filmmaker.
For instance, the choice of “panache” as Gustave’s olfactory calling card is hardly accidental. The word itself means a “grand or flamboyant manner,” but it literally refers to (via its French derivation) the ornamental plume of feathers (or antlers) found on a helmet or cap. The modern usage as a stylistic flourish first appeared in English in the 1898 play Cyrano de Bergerac, whose protagonist, Cyrano, famously has a large nose not unlike Fiennes’ Gustave.
Coincidental? I think not. Additionally, many of the male characters in Grand Budapest Hotel, including Monsieur Gustave, sport coiffures with inexplicably upturned, feathered bangs that look a bit like wings. Panache indeed.
Anderson’s attention to aesthetic detail is legendary. For Grand Budapest Hotel, which was shot largely on location in Görlitz, Germany, where the filmmaker discovered a vacant, 1912 department store with a huge atrium that became the lobby of the hotel, and ample space for production offices, including Anderson’s art department where bottles of L’air de Panache and other props were made by hand.
The film’s plot unfolds in three distinct time periods (1932, 1968, and 1985) shot in three different aspect ratios — the proportion of a film’s width to its height — including the nearly square “Academy ratio” of 1.375:1, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences set as the standard for studio films in 1932, the year in which the largest segment of Grand Budapest Hotel also happens to be set. Most moviegoers might never notice the subtle changes in appearance during the film. Nevertheless, they lend a richness to the storytelling by tweaking the size and shape of the actual window through which the audience sees the film.
I’ve seen the film twice already and wish to see many more times in order to fully absorb and appreciate its myriad layers of painstaking mise-en-scene detail, which have become Anderson’s signature. The director creates a world where everything is just so — a hand-crafted banquet of the senses to which he invites his audience with grand hospitality not unlike that which Monsieur Gustave showers on his guests at the Grand Budapest.
“Many of the hotel’s most valued and distinguished guests came for him,” the older Zero says of his “counselor and guardian,” Monsieur Gustave. The concierge himself describes his vocation in romantic, almost religious terms. The hotel is a “great and noble house,” he tells his staff in a letter from prison read by Zero during their group dinner, that it is their duty and privilege to “keep spotless and glorified.”
The concierge’s mission is to anticipate his guests’ every need, to know what their desires will be before they do, the concierge tells young Zero. Discretion is of the utmost importance, and along with loving attention (literally, in the case of Monsieur Gustave), both are dispensed lavishly. When Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, entirely transformed into an 84-year-old, platinum blonde dowager countess by simply magical special effects makeup) turns up dead in the private chambers of her estate in far-flung Lutz, Gustave rushes to her side — “I’ve come to pay my respects to a great woman whom I loved,” he says — kneels at her coffin, takes her dead hand in his, and flatters her one last time.
“You’re looking so well, darling, you really are,” he tells the corpse. “I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down in the morgue, but I want some.”
When Gustave is wrongfully imprisoned for orchestrating Madame D’s (somewhat) untimely demise — an expected plot twist that launches the lengthy, entertaining caper arc of the film — he manages to escape with the help of Zero and a clandestine network of fellow concierges (including concierge cameos by Anderson’s oft-collaborators Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Wallace Woladarsky, and Waris Ahluwalia) at the world’s grandest hotels known as The Society of the Crossed Keys.
Interestingly, it’s actually a real thing. The International Union of Hotel Concierges is known as “Les Clefs D’Or” (the gold keys) and are identified by their symbolic lapel pins — a pair of crossed gold skeleton keys, and their motto: service through friendship. “Clefs d'Or concierges will accommodate every guest request so long as it is morally, legally, and humanly possible,” the union’s website explains. “Their services run the gamut from the mundane to the extraordinary, yet each request is fulfilled with vigor to the guest's full satisfaction.”
The reading of Madame D.’s will, presided over by her attorney Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), takes place in a drawing room of her estate, in front of a large oil painting of a wild boar, and flanked by dozens of mounted antlers. With this seemingly inconsequential detail, Anderson adds yet another layer of meaning to his tableu, in European heraldry, a wild boar is the symbol for hospitality. In the world of Wes Anderson, nothing happens by chance. Everything has meaning.
Anderson himself is our cinematic concierge. He extends audacious hospitality to his audience, inviting us into the palace of his imagination, luxuriating us with fastidious attention, and making us feel at home — part of his tribe of fringe-dwellers and magical misfits.
All of Anderson’s films are meditations on what constitutes family and belonging. Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. Zero is an orphan, a refugee and torture survivor who arrives at the grand hotel without any family or friends. Monsieur Gustave becomes his mentor, friend, and chosen family. “We are brothers,” Zero tells him.
As riotously funny as it is — the film features one of the best, most eccentric chase scenes I’ve ever witnessed — there is a sanguine nostalgia that undergirds its story, as if the filmmaker himself is pining for a golden age that, by accident of birth, he missed out on by a generation or two.
“We are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange,” the great Southern writer Carson McCullers wrote in 1940.” As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known."
Therein lies the existential draw and spiritual appeal of Anderson’s films. They are destinations for our hearts and minds, sacred cinematic space where our host has knows what we want and need before we do, and dotingly attends us with great humor and grace.
Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture. She is the author of five books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and the forthcoming Disquiet Time: Rants, Raves, and Reflections on the Good Book By the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (October 2014). Learn more about Cathleen on her blog and website, incubate:spirit.