In a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, he interviewed Michael Shannon who briefly discussed playing Elvis Presley in the film Elvis & Nixon (2016). He mentioned how Elvis is this larger than life figure, but when he discovered that Elvis’ favorite book was Siddhartha, he saw a different side of the man. Between his research and talking with one of Elvis’ best friends, Shannon described a man who was just looking for peace and who “died of a broken heart,” at least according to Elvis’ friend.
That movie, though I haven’t actually seen it, begins with two eccentric images of characters we’re loosely familiar with but probably don’t really know. Shannon’s job (and Kevin Spacey’s, who played Nixon) was to dig deep enough to find out what was at the heart of each character, so that though you start with this wild caricature, you end with a clearer picture of the human underneath.
That’s what Wes Anderson’s films are like, in particular The Grand Budapest Hotel. The character at the center of his most recent film is Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge who caters to wealthy clientele (though mostly wealthy elderly women) at his grand hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, set in the 1940s around the outbreak of World War II.
He is a man with everything in the place, on the surface. His purple suit is always perfectly pressed, his hair perfectly slicked and his perfume perfectly, though maybe a little strongly applied. He expects the same of his entire staff, including the newest Lobby Boy, named Zero (Tony Revolori).
At the start of the film, we are introduced to Gustave’s quirks, namely his affinity for the wealthy women, whom he seduces, as well as his devotion to his job. We’re only told what’s on the surface, and part of the journey is finding out what’s underneath, but he might not even know what’s really going on inside his head. Zero, on the other hand, is more of a blank slate. We know that he is similarly devoted to his new job, and we know that he has no family. That’s it.
I should also mention that this story, as zany and wild as it is, is told through two different characters. The first is the adult Zero, who recounts the story to a young author played by Jude Law. Then Jude Law’s character recounts what adult Zero has told him, and his version of the story is probably a little more heightened as he has presumably turned it into a novel.
The story gains momentum when an elderly woman, infatuated with Gustave, passes away and leaves to him an expensive painting (“Boy With Apple”) in her will. The rest of the family (something like a more sinister version of the Addams Family) is immediately suspicious of Gustave, and they frame him for murder.
Gustave and Zero escape that family’s mansion with the painting, but soon enough Gustave is arrested for her murder, sent to prison on the testimony of the elderly woman’s butler Serge who claims to have seen Gustave at the crime scene. Soon after, with the aid of his fellow prisoners and of Zero, Gustave escapes prison.
While this escape plot has been developing, Zero has fallen in love with a baker named Agatha (Soairse Ronan), and aided the escape by sending in digging tools baked into small cakes.
Once free, Gustave tries to clear his name, using his connections in the grand hotel industry by calling on other concierges. They help him, driven by a sense of duty like the boy scouts in Moonrise Kingdom.
Gustave and Zero track down Serge to a monastery where they try to get him to clear Gustave of the murder charges. Instead, Serge is strangled by J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) who works for the family trying to frame Gustave for murder.
They pursue Jopling, and for a moment he ends up with the upper hand on Gustave, about to push him off a cliff except that Zero is able to shove Jopling to his death.
The two of them flee back to the Grand Budapest Hotel which now houses soldiers as the war has officially broken out. Dmitri (Adrien Brody), the deceased elderly woman’s son, pursues Gustave, trying to get back “Boy With Apple” and also just to kill the concierge.
Agatha sneaks inside to retrieve the “Boy With Apple” painting, but Dmitri spots her and follows her, knowing that she aided Gustave’s escape from prison. Gustave and Zero enter the hotel and see Dmitri. A gun battle follows that includes war soldiers as well as Dmitri’s goons.
Agatha ends up suspended on a balcony, trying to escape, and Zero tries to save her only to end up right next to her hanging off the ledge. They notice that attached to the painting is a note (placed there earlier by Serge). It turns out to be the elderly woman’s second will, made in the event of her murder. This will says to leave everything to Gustave (with Zero getting 1.5% of the inheritance, based on an agreement he made with Gustave).
We return to 1968 where Jude Law is listening to this entire tale from Adult Zero. Adult Zero (F. Murray Abraham) owns The Grand Budapest Hotel which has fallen into oblivion, hardly occupied. He inherited it from Gustave who was shot and killed by soldiers after he spoke up in Zero’s defense. Then, Zero explains, Agatha died two years later. He says that he has kept the hotel in her honor.
When we see the hotel in 1968, “Boy With Apple” can be seen behind the concierge desk only now it’s hung up on the wall, crooked, with no one to care about it. It’s a cruel joke about all that happened and all that was risked to retrieve the painting. Just like The Grand Budapest Hotel, it wastes away in the rest of the world’s shadow.
The film ends with a young girl reading the story written by the author (Jude Law), about his journey to The Grand Budapest Hotel.
So this entire film is broadly comic but also a bit haunting. The way we see the large, empty hotel before we ever see it in a more thriving era, makes it more clear that we’re watching ghosts. Everything they do, every consequence, every moment of lust, every smile, has disappeared, and ultimately it only remains within the words of someone who was never there to begin with and may have embellished the story for his own benefit.
Even he, the writer, is gone and only remains in the form of a small statue.
This feels like Anderson’s most heightened film and, because of what I just wrote, his most solemn. The ending isn’t as uplifting as his past films in which everything is neatly wrapped up and served on a platter. Instead, it’s like we’re reading about the story of someone’s scar, and in order to tell that story they open it up only to sew it back together in the end. Or maybe that’s not really an apt comparison, but it’s something like that.
I wrote, when discussing Moonrise Kingdom, that each Wes Anderson film starts with a lack of motion and ends with excessive motion, to demonstrate the main character’s growth and new way of looking at the world. This film could end like that, and it did if you pause the movie at the right time, but instead it moves on to show the way everything fades with time.
Agatha didn’t have to die two years after the story’s events unfolded, but she did. And what does that really matter within the context of the film? I think it’s a way of commenting on how we’re supposed to feel after completing a movie as a viewer. We’re supposed to get the sense that things will continue to be the way they are at the end of a movie. They walk off into the sunset? Well then they’re probably always going to be walking off into sunsets, except that’s not the way life works.
Instead, a story like what happened in this film, is grand and wild and probably more living than many people have in an entire lifetime. So that’s what the characters get: an entire lifetime’s worth of memories condensed within a couple months. I don’t know if there is a broader point to make, but I think this is some sort of disruption in our viewing habits.
In Wes Anderson’s other films, there’s a sense that what happens in the story isn’t too different from what’s been happening in the protagonist’s life before that. In Bottle Rocket, it feels like Dignan has been cooking up plots like the small time robberies for years. He’s always been that way, and Anthony had fallen in love before. There’s this feeling at the end that while they grew in the movie, maybe they’re the same people as they were before. In Rushmore, despite Max’s newfound personal connections, he was still the hardworking, enterprising kid before the movie as he was throughout most of the movie.
One last example: Steve Zissou had already gone on many seafaring adventures before the movie began.
But in The Grand Budapest Hotel, none of the characters had ever experienced anything like what they experienced within the story. Gustave’s life was completely upended, and even Agatha helped a prisoner escape from jail, and she had never done that before. Zero too seems to undertake an adventure he’s never been on, but he’s a refugee from a war-torn country with no living parents. He survives this crazy story because he’s gone through something like it before, now that I think about it.
So Zero lives to tell about the events like he was able to tell Gustave about his escape from his home country.
What am I getting at here? I’m trying to justify the heightened reality of the film as something relevant to the context of the story rather than just an extension of Wes Anderson’s cinematographic style. More people die in this film (and violently) than any of his other films.
The story is a little more incredible probably because it has been filtered through two storytellers, and precisely because it was always going to end in a little bit of nothingness, that’s why it was so grand. If the hotel had survived and seemed to be doing well, then everything before that probably wouldn’t have been so extreme. I think. I guess what I’m trying to say, if I haven’t already, is that more people died, in more violent ways, and more had to happen to contrast with where we are at the end.
Think of war, for example. So many people die, often in vain. What is for fought for? I don’t need to get into that, it’s also something that’s probably over my head, but I think Wes Anderson suggests that it’s fought for next to nothing. Everything in this story is driven by the pursuit of this painting, which again is amusable titled “Boy With Apple,” yet in the end it wastes away, crooked on the wall. In a way everything that happened was all for naught. Sure Zero developed a meaningful relationship with Gustave, and Gustave proved to be a little more selfless than before, but the movie didn’t end there, with that character growth. It purposefully continued to show that, like everything, that character growth disappeared among everything else.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is like a battlefield, and Zero remains there, haunted by what happened and forever changed (both good and bad). So like people who go to a starbucks which happens to be on a street where there was once some important, bloody battle in Europe, Jason Schwartzmen’s modern day concierge (in 1968) casually hangs out where so much drama once unfolded. In a nice detail, we see that Schwartzmen’s concierge has a few hairs out of place, showing that his uniform isn’t as impeccable as the hotel employees in the 40s.
Here he is, standing in front of the (MacGuffin) “Boy With Apple” painting…
…with a tuft of hair sticking up, versus Gustave, years before:
Gustave’s hair is in place, and his bow tie is straighter.
Lastly, the movie doesn’t just end with adult Zero’s conversation with Jude Law in the already empty hotel in 1968. Instead it ends years later, after the author’s death. So like how the crazy adventure of wartime in The Grand Budapest Hotel has faded away with time, so has Jason Schwartzmen’s concierge and adult Zero. Everything fades, even the conversation about the memory of something long ago. It’s just another layer, I supposed.
Okay now one more final thing. The bulk of the story takes place in the mid 40s, and the next moment in time is 1968. That’s only about 22 years of time, and yet Zero has gone from what looks like this 16-18 year old kid to F. Murray Abraham (age 75 in 2014). He’s way older than he should be. Similarly, the next time jump is from 1968 to 1985, only 17 years. In that time, Jude Law has gone from Jude Law (age 44 at the time of the film’s release in 2014) to Tom Wilkinson (age 66 in 2014), though Wilkinson is made to look older.