How can a movie with a director known for his visual style appeal to a lady with low vision? What can I say. I gave The Grand Budapest Hotel a chance this past weekend. (I’m avoiding spoilers for those who haven’t watched it.)
As a reluctant hipster–glasses wearer, coffee drinker, food truck supporter–I was overdue to see a movie directed by Wes Anderson. A Fresh Air interview convinced me that The Grand Budapest Hotel sounded like an interesting film. We bought our tickets ahead of time, venturing an hour away to attend the show with friends in DC.
At the theater, we stumbled upon a subculture: fans of Wes Anderson, people who wait in orderly lines in thoughtful outfits with knowing smiles on their faces until the previous (sold out) show lets out. The congestion of bodies in the carpeted hallways increased the temperature, but not tempers. Even the artsy previews required a longer attention span, a secret handshake of sorts, entertaining the agreeable audience. Time to open your mind. We anticipated the show.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a charming caper story set in the 1930s in the Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional European country. Narrative ownership started with a book reader in a courtyard and followed layers of hotel associates to rest with Zero, the new Lobby Boy. Zero meets his employer, the notorious concierge, a man sounding of vulgarity, yet smelling of L’Air d’Panache–this is the man orchestrating this expiring world. To tell the story, the director weaves together cinematic elements like set design, use of color, dialogue, and music to form a textured style.
First, the elaborate set design filled with unique props showcased effort, every scene a postcard from this magical world of Zubrowka. I imagined the smell of books and piled papers in the law office and contemplated the concierge’s ever-present perfume. I could feel the bitter cold outside and the humid space inside the hotel’s tiled thermal baths.
Besides full set design, Anderson uses the charm of miniatures and signature tracking shots–zooming out, turning, following, zooming in. With action happening near and far, activities are riveting. Creating and packing and transporting Mendl cakes. Working the concierge desk. Witnessing the jailhouse quintet’s performance. Meanwhile, signage and handwritten documents appear everywhere. Even coat buttons probably have detail, too, but my monocular was working overtime to glimpse elements. Things would get missed.
The movie’s saturated colors worked well with my eyes. The prominent pastels or lush shades or serious grays alternatively set the tone as an unspoken character. The Grand Budapest emanated life. “It’s bright, vivid, and poppy but not electric,” Adam Stockhausen, production designer, said in an interview on Indiewire.
Additionally, the dialogue–delivered as precisely as those elaborate sweets–continued to enhance this odd world. The characters interacted with purpose. Transactional relationships combined with tidy uniforms. Hair styles hinted at neurosis; consistent walking speeds, careful posture, and eyes looking in pointed direction all worked to bolster the hustle. Crude humor and profanity contrasted with an otherwise neat place–clever, wink wink. We’re in on the joke.
Another cinematic element I liked was the music. Anderson and music supervisor Randall Poster co-produced the soundtrack which includes original work by composer Alexandre Desplat and Russian folk music. On an ABKCO Records page, Desplat says about his score, “Where and when can a film composer use alpen horns, whistles, balalalikas, organ, male choir, bells and cymbalum? Well, only in Wes’s World.”
The snappy music kept the story tempo with seamless transitions. It captured the grandiosity of the hotel, the pace of life, and the overlapping character arcs. Whimsical notes blended with steady beats to compliment a climbing funicular, descending elevators, marching staff, moving trains. A restlessness to support this quirky, between wars world.
Besides the music, amplified sounds enhanced the experience. I remember the crunch of snow under boots. Car motors rumbling. The wheels of the mush cart in jail. Countless men firing guns across an interior gallery. Maids scrubbing the floors to a sparkle.
In my cushy seat, I consumed this land. The devious and delightful mixed in every bite, washed down with melancholy and dead pan humor. The approaching wartime contrasted with the frivolity of hotel life. The bombs will snuff out this elegance, but not yet.
A drawback was the bright snow chase scenes which led me to close my eyes. I didn’t use a descriptive audio device, but I’m curious to know how the script for the accessibility feature would fit into such a full movie.
Liberal use of the f-bomb as well as crude humor puts this film in the “family unfriendly” category, but with two feet solidly in adulthood, I enjoyed the film immensely. I would watch it again. Before I do that, I might check out writer Stefan Zweig as his work inspired the The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Have you watched the film or any other film directed by Wes Anderson? What do you think? Let me know.