In the closing scenes of Wes Anderson’s latest and greatest adventure, The Grand Budapest Hotel, aged hotel owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) reflects on the larger-than-life presence of his long-time friend and mentor, hotel concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). “His world had vanished long before he entered it,” notes Zero. “But I must say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” It seems clear that in that line, Anderson is speaking not only of Gustavem but also of himself.
Out of all the filmmakers working today, Anderson is definitely one of the most wackily distinctive. His films are like elaborate train sets wound up to power themselves, or intricately designed dollhouses possessing a symmetry that doesn’t limit the life inside but enhance it. Characterized by madcap characters and cheerfully intelligent stories, Anderson’s movies are always a joy to watch, both visually and in terms of narrative. And, thrillingly at this stage in his career, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most marvellous and graceful illusion to date – not to mention his most strikingly dark and thoughtful.
The movie consists of three basic layers. First, we see a nameless girl approaching a monument to a man known as The Author (an Anderson stand-in, no doubt). She reads from a memoir that he wrote, specifically focusing on the time he spent at The Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, a once-great European nation devastated by war and poverty. In the second layer, we see The Author (Jude Law), bored and depressed, who is drawn to the older Zero and begins to inquire about his history with the hotel. As Zero recounts the story of his life, we delve into the third layer, which makes up the vast majority of the movie.
In that story, Zero accompanies Gustave to a will reading for Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, nearly unrecognizable), an elderly heiress with whom Gustave had a long-time romance. When she bequeaths to him a valuable painting known as Boy with Apple (Anderson’s razor-sharp critique of the art world is side-splittingly funny), Madame D.’s family, including the nefarious Dmitri (Adrien Brody), accuses him of her murder and falsifies evidence to land him in prison. With Zero’s help, Gustave escapes and sets out to clear his name – though Dmitri’s bodyguard Jopling (Willem Dafoe, never better) makes that quest a potentially deadly one.
I won’t go into much more detail about the fantastic and deeply humorous adventure at the center of The Grand Budapest Hotel – suffice to say, the delights of Anderson’s film are innumerable. Every detail holds its own joke, and every character is brilliantly screwy enough to justify their own spinoffs (though this isn’t Marvel – this gem of a film is all we’re ever going to get out of Anderson as far as they’re concerned). Fiennes makes the biggest impression, giving Anderson’s rapid-fire dialogue an urgency, dignity and hilarity hitertho unseen in the director’s body of work – the pair are truly a match made in heaven. His work as Gustave, whether the character is planning a jailbreak or mouthing off to a death squad on a train, is possibly the actor’s finest to date.
Revolori is also phenomenal, bringing an understated charisma and sense of awe to the all-important part of Zero. Dafoe, bearing a bulldog’s misshapen grin, turns Jopling into a darkly funny, Terminator-esque killer who’s invincible – until he’s suddenly, hilariously not. I could go on. Brody, Swinton, Abraham, Law, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldbum – all superb. In typical Anderson style, the celebrity cameos flow freely, and somehow none ever come across as anything less than organic.
I mentioned previously that this is Anderson’s darkest film yet. Even as Gustave cracks wise about romantic poetry and sleeping with elderly women, and as Gustave and Zero encounter the Society of the Crossed Keys and a series of frustratingly formal monks, the specter of war looms large over the proceedings, waiting to disrupt the merriment. Anderson’s story was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist who specialized in writing about history and who was exiled from his country during WWII, only to commit suicide soon after. You can feel Zweig’s ghost, and his musings of a beauty forever lost to the ravages of time, up on the screen as well.
Perhaps The Grand Budapest Hotel will be Anderson’s masterpiece. It certainly is a masterpiece. But it also marks a maturation for Anderson, a step up from his usually happy-go-lucky fare. So hopefully it also marks the beginning of another great chapter in the career of a director who, judging from this movie’s stunning vivacity and grand tragedy, is just starting to figure out just how free he is to pursue the projects of his dreams. If not, and if The Grand Budapest Hotel is to serve as his greatest achievement, I’ll be plenty happy. It’s one of those movies I know I’ll be thrilled to watch over and over again, for the rest of my life.
20th Century Fox delivered an absolutely stellar 1080p video transfer for this Blu-Ray. It’s clear off the bat that Anderson and his cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman wanted to communicate the uniqueness of their movie because they worked in three different aspect ratios, which might cause some viewers to panic. The main narrative is in 1.33:1, but the two other layers are in 2.30:1 and 1:82:1. Don’t fear the strange set-up – this is how Anderson and Yeoman wanted The Grand Budapest Hotel to be viewed, and you’ll understand why quickly enough. The aspect ratios aside, Anderson’s every intention is communicated spectacularly through this video transfer. The detail is sublime, from threads in fabric to faded paint to the deep mulberry birthmark in the shape of Mexico on Ronan’s character’s cheek. Skin tones, too, are appropriately realistic throughout, though instances when there’s a purple hue to the proceedings (again, what Anderson wanted) do alter the appearances of some characters now and again. The complicated illustrations and patently, purposefully fake backdrops that showcase the exterior of the hotel and other areas of Zubrowka look gorgeous.
Likewise, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track captures every nuance of the often speedy dialogue, background sound effects (like boots clacking against marble floor, gunfire and a train’s whistle) and Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score. The only complaint I have about it was that it wasn’t a 7.1 (which I think would have made for an even more immersive viewing experience), and when that’s all I have to critique, you know this is a pretty perfect audio track.
In terms of special features, The Grand Budapest Hotel Blu-Ray is a little lacking, but what is included is at least fun to watch. In addition to a digital HD UltraViolet copy, it includes:
- Bill Murray Tours the Town (4:17)
- Kunstmuseum Zubrowka Lecture (2:52)
- The Society of the Crossed Keys (2:56)
- Mendl’s Secret Recipe (3:23)
- Promotional Featurettes
- The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel (18:08)
- Cast (3:24)
- Wes Anderson (3:46)
- Stills Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer (2:26)
Though Murray only has a small part in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he stuck around on set to tour the locations where the film was shot. It’s a fun little extra, mostly because Murray is a charming host. He goes behind the scenes, messes around with a prop severed head and generally acts mischievous.
The vignettes are a neat addition as well. One finds Tom Wilkinson’s Narrator giving a slideshow presentation about the history of Zubrowka and how the European nations strengthened their ties, making the hotel industry very lucrative. The hilarious Zubrowkan national anthem is included written below portraits of the country’s landscape. Another takes a documentary-style approach, finding an inquisitive man with a hand-held camera peskering Bill Murray about the Society of the Crossed Keys. That style is quickly displaced, though, by a slideshow about the origins of the Society and its crucial role in ending the war that broke out during The Grand Budapest Hotel. Finally, one of the vignettes shows viewers how to make some of the baked goods glimpsed at Mendl’s, where Ronan’s character works.
“The Making of The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an 18-minute making-of featurette (set up as promo trailers) that features lots of insightful comments from Anderson and various members of the cast and crew. It’s split up into “Part 1 – The Story,” “Part 2 – The Society of the Crossed Keys,” “Part 3 – Creating the Hotel” and “Part 4 – Creating a World.” As a whole, this featurette is an absolute must-watch for fans of the movie. It goes into detail about the characters and their motivations, the wacky universe that Anderson created for this movie, the greater themes of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Anderson’s approach to creating the titular hotel as both a character in of itself and as a contained world away from the problems of Zubrowka.
“Cast” and “Wes Anderson” pale in comparison, neither leaving much of an impact due to their short lengths, but I’d still recommend that fans check them out. They focus on the wild assortment of stars brought together for this movie and on the supremely talented writer-director himself.
With stellar video and audio and some strong extras, The Grand Budapest Hotel Blu-Ray is the best way to experience a film that absolutely must be experienced. It’s truly magical how quickly Anderson is able to transport viewers to the fictional world of Zubrowka, and the “who’s who” cast make the movie a fun guessing game for cinephiles as well. I do believe that The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing short of a modern classic. It’s funny, riveting, ambitious, deeply moving and stunningly beautiful to behold – in other words, it’s exactly the kind of movie I wish that today’s filmmakers emerged with more often. On the other hand, however, that hardly any ever do just makes The Grand Budapest Hotel that much more worthy of being treasured.