Film Review: Grand Budapest Hotel | Zero’s Tale

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Wes Anderson is a director who loves to play with nostalgia and the retro in order to create memorable and great comedy films. Whether it’s using elements of the French New Wave to tell a children’s adventure tale (Moonrise Kingdom) or using the tropes of Jacques Cousteau to create one of Bill Murray’s finest roles (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Anderson’s film have a distinct style to them that makes them stand out compared to other comedies and dramas. Everything he creates looks like it’s straight out of a childrens book (or, in one case, is an adaptation of a childrens book, with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox), and this can add to the nostalgia the viewer may have towards periods like the 1960s or 1970s.Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is probably his most nostalgia heavy film to date. The film opens in the present, with a young woman reading a book titled The Grand Budapest Hotel in front of the grave of Zubrowka’s (the fictional eastern European nation the film is set in) finest author. The film cuts back to 1985 when the author (Tom Wilkinson) explains how he came to write the story. The film then flashes back to the 1960s when the young author (Jude Law) meets Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the hotel. Zero tells the young writer the story of how he came to acquire the hotel, flashing back to 1932. It’s here that the story mostly switches back and forth between Zero’s story as a young lobby boy (played by Tony Revolori in his first major film role) working in the hotel under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the dinner conversation the older Zero and the young writer have.

Already, the viewer is thrust into a real nostalgia heavy tale. The viewer is given four removed narratives in order to tell the story, and this is a move that clearly affects the story. Every time the tale goes back, the story’s events become a lot more susceptible to the nostalgia filter. What we are seeing on screen may not be the true story of what happened when Gustave was accused of murdering Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), but the story we are shown is presented as truthful by the person telling the tale.

When Zero speaks with the young writer, he is an old man who is reaching the end of his life, having lived a life full of experiences. Zero’s version of the story, one that sets the Grand Budapest Hotel as a giant pink cake atop a mountain full of quirky and bizarre events, is one that is colored to be as wonderful and fantastic as can be. However, it becomes clear that Zero is affected by what happened in the past, as his mentions of his lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) demonstrate. When the author recounts the story, he is merely recounting the meeting with Zero. It’s entirely like he himself has remembered things differently from his dinner with Zero.

What this means is that the film has the freedom to be as wacky and camp as it chooses to be. Zero’s tale, being the furthest removed, is a story that would be recounted years later, where the humorous elements are played up and the darker, more hurtful events are usually left out (most of the deaths in the film occur off screen and sometimes are just alluded to). The stories closer to the present are a lot more realistic. In the young writer’s tale, the hotel has become a lot more modern, but has lost the glamor of the early years. The version of the young woman reading the book in the park is the one with the least amount of detail. We see her open the book, and it’s not till the very end that we see her reach the end of the book. We know little of Zubrowka in the process of her story, but she’s the one who gets to be removed entirely from the world, all so she can read the tale of a group of people who have all passed away.
The film is rich in detail and subtext, but still remains a comedic and enjoyable story. While there are mentions of a political uprising, a looming war, and referrals to issues Zero faced as an immigrant, the film still manages to be a screwball comedy and romance film. Like most Anderson films, it does feature many of his regular actors in supporting and cameo roles (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Willem Dafoe), all of whom are memorable and interesting in their brief appearances. The Andersonian touches that help cement his auteur status are still there, so the film is definitely a delight to his fans.

On the whole, this film is quite the radical departure from his last few films. While his last two films, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom were lighthearted and full of childish whimsy and humor, this one still manages to find the humor in a darker setting. A lot of the humor in this film comes with the knowledge that a lot of terrible things happened during the funny moments and that the events that followed were filled with chaos and tragedy. Still, it’s a very interesting movie and definitely a lot more complex than it appears.

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