It took me a while to come around to appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel.
When I first saw Wes Anderson’s latest film, way back in March, I have to admit that I was somehow both impressed and disappointed. The film’s virtues were obvious. Ralph Fiennes gave a brilliant lead performance as Gustave, the courtly and womanizing concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. As played by Fiennes, Gustave came to represent a certain type of old world elegance that, I’m assuming, died out long before I was born. As is typical of Anderson’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel was visual delight. Even when the film’s convoluted storyline occasionally grew self-indulgent, The Grand Budapest Hotel was always interesting and fun to watch.
At the same time, I had some issues with The Grand Budapest Hotel.
One of the major ones — and I will admit right now that this will seem minor to some of you — is that halfway through the film, a cat is killed. The evil Dimitri Desgoffe von Taxis (Adrien Brody) is attempting to intimidate a nervous lawyer, Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum). Kovacs’s owns a cat and, at one point, Dimitri’s henchman, Jopling (Willem DaFoe), tosses the cat out of a window. Kovacs runs to window and sees his dead cat splattered on the sidewalk below…
And this is when the audience in the theater laughed and I got very angry.
To me, there was nothing funny about killing that man’s cat. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more that I’ve come to realize that my reaction had more to do with the audience than the film. The film was not saying that the cat’s death was funny. The film was saying that Dimitri and Jopling were evil and dangerous, as their actions throughout the film would demonstrate. It was the audience that decided, since Grand Budapest Hotel is full of funny moments and has the off-center style that one has come to expect from Wes Anderson, that meant every scene in the film was meant to be played strictly for laughs. The fact of the matter is that a typical Wes Anderson film will always attract a certain type of hipster douchebag. They were the ones who loudly laughed, mostly because they had spent the entire movie laughing loudly in order to make sure that everyone around them understood that they were in on the joke.
But that’s not the fault of the film. Despite what you may have heard and what the Golden Globes would have you believe, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a comedy. For all the deliberately funny and quirky moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is actually a very serious film. For all of the slapstick and for all of Ralph Fiennes’s snarky line readings, The Grand Budapest Hotel ultimately ends on a note of deep melancholy.
When I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, it seemed like it was almost too quirky for its own good. And, to be honest, I could still have done without some of Anderson’s more self-indulgent touches. The sequence at the end, where Gustave, who has been framed for murder, gets help from a series of his fellow hotel concierges started out funny but, as everyone from Bill Murray to Owen Wilson put in an appearance, it started to feel less like the story of Gustave and more like the story of all of Wes Anderson’s famous friends.
However, the more I’ve thought about it (and The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that I’ve thought about a lot over the past year), the more I’ve realized that the quirkiness is only a problem if you made the mistake of thinking that the film is meant to be taken literally.
The more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that the most important scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel were to be found at the beginning and the end of the film.
The film opens with a teenage girl sitting in front of the grave of a great author. She opens a book and starts to read.
As soon as the girl starts to read, we flashback 29 years to 1985 where the author (Tom Wilkinson) sits behind his office desk and starts to talk about the time that he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel.
We flashback again to 1969, where we see how the author (now played by Jude Law) met the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a man named Zero (played by F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Zero tells the author the story of how he first came to the Grand Budapest and how he eventually came to own the hotel.
And again, we go back in time, this time to 1932. We see how the young Zero (Tony Revolori) first met and came to be the protegé of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). We see how Gustave taught Zero how to be the perfect concierge. Eventually, Gustave would be framed for murdering a guest, Zero would meet and fall in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and then Zubrowska (the fictional Eastern European country in which this all takes place) would be taken over by fascists who would eventually claim the hotel as their own.
After the story of Gustave, Zero, and Agatha has been told, we suddenly flash forward to the author talking to Zero and then to the old author telling the story to his grandson and then finally back to the teenage reader sitting in the cemetery.
In other words, the Grand Budapest Hotel may be the story of Zero but we’re experiencing it through the memories of the author as visualized by the reader. Gustave, Zero, and the entire Grand Budapest Hotel are not just parts of a story. Instead, they become symbols of an old way of life that, though it may have been lost, still exists in the memories of old travelers like the author and the imaginations of young readers like the girl in the cemetery.
As I said at the start of this, I was vaguely disappointed with The Grand Budapest Hotel when I first saw it but, perhaps more than any other movie that I saw last year, this has been a film that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. Having recently rewatched the film on HBO, I can also attest that both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Ralph Fiennes’s performance not only hold up on a second viewing but improve as well.
I still stand by some of my original criticisms of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I still wish that cat had not been thrown out the window, even though I now understand that Anderson’s main intent was to show the evil of Dimitri and Jopling. And I still find some of the cameos to be jarring, precisely because they take us out of the world of the film.
But you know what?
Despite those flaws, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a unique and intriguing film. When I sat down tonight and made out my list of my top 26 films of 2014, I was not surprised that Grand Budapest Hotel made the list. But I was a little bit surprised at how high I ended up ranking it.
But then I thought about it and it all made sense.