Framing, and re-framing, Gustave: Anderson toys with narrative as he depicts whimsical adventures in ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’

April 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 22, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel, the new film directed and co-written by Wes Anderson, chronicles the madcap adventures of one Monsieur Gustave H., an extraordinary concierge. Zero, Gustave’s employee, protégé and friend, serves as sidekick to the concierge as well as one of the main narrators of the story.

The protagonist is a man with a bon mot and a plan for virtually any and every situation, no matter how extraordinary. A commanding figure at the eponymous luxury resort, which is situated in a fictitious eastern European nation, Gustave is the type of charming extrovert who never met a stranger; indeed, he addresses men whom he met moments before as “darling.”

Gustave has a particular knack for wining, dining and — not to put too fine a point on it — romancing dowagers. Most of the movie concerns the aftermath of the (rather suspicious) death of Madame D. and her attempts to bequeath a Renaissance portrait named “Boy with Apple” to Gustave.

Madame D.’s tempestuous son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), wants control of all of his late mother’s estate, including the portrait; to that end, he and his vicious lackey, Jopling (Willem Dafore), ruthlessly harass Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), the lawyer serving as executor of the will. Dmitri and Jopling also frame Gustave for murder, thereby requiring the concierge and his devoted “lobby boy,” Zero, to mastermind a prison escape.

The film begins with Anderson and fellow screenwriter Hugo Guinness setting the stage in rather laborious fashion. A teenaged girl walks into a cemetery in the Republic of Zubrowka, places a hotel key on the pedestal of a bust, and pulls out a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. After a closeup of the photo of the book’s author, the man himself begins introducing his story, which he says he reproduces exactly as it was presented to him.

The narrative voice soon shifts from the aged author to his neurasthenic younger self, whom we see moping about the now dingy and nearly deserted Grand Budapest Hotel in the late 1960s. The unnamed writer becomes intrigued by a mysterious fellow guest, Zero Moustafa, the resort owner. The bulk of the picture actually takes place in the hotel’s immense and otherwise empty dining room: Here, over dinner, Moustafa tells the writer about his adventures with Gustave as Europe teeters on the brink of war in the 1930s.

If the film’s beginning is poky, the middle moves along briskly, and the final third feels, if anything, a tad rushed.

The entire production, however, is uniformly twee. I’ve only seen three Anderson films: this one, Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I loved Rushmore; the latter film I enjoyed but found somewhat problematic. Thanks at least in part to the time and place in which it’s set, The Grand Budapest Hotel has a quaintness factor many multiples of those earlier movies, which occur in contemporary times.

The director’s esthetic was deftly captured by “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders,” a hysterical fall 2013 Saturday Night Live short. The parody has (actually or fictitiously) Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton; it also features many familiar Anderson trademarks: precocious children, deadpan dialogue, men in life-or-death situations acting with unusual composure, terribly corny special effects, and closeups of humorous written messages.

All those actors and elements appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Norton has the most substantial role, as a top Zubrowka police officer named Henckels.) Most of Budapest’s alpine sequence, notably the cable cars and a sled-and-ski chase, is as obviously fake as any of the ludicrous sea creatures shown in The Life Aquatic. Earlier in the movie, after Gustave and Zero are roughed up, each character sports dual trails of dried blood that are too well matched to have ever occurred in real life.

A little of this can go a long way; many viewers will grow tired of this shtick within a few minutes.

My reaction to the film evolved over time, both as and after I saw Budapest. After a short period, I viewed Anderson’s being silly simply for the sake of being silly was tiresome. Then, once the plot kicked in, I was drawn up by the movie’s charms, thanks in no small part to the charisma of Ralph Fiennes as Gustave and Tony Revolori as the young Zero. Still, I had some reservations about the movie.

The morning after I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, I had a thought that shed a whole new light on the picture. At its conclusion, we see the teenager in the cemetery close the book she had been holding. She is sitting on a bench near the bust where she hung the key; apparently, she has just finished reading the volume.

That prompted the belated realization that Budapest is not a straightforward narrative but a meditation on how who we are affects what we observe. Zero, the sidekick and narrator, tells his story years later to the author, who some time after that puts the events on paper, which the teenager subsequently reads. (All of which, of course, Anderson and Guinness and their collaborators convey to us.) So The Grand Budapest Hotel is really about the reading experience.

When Zero and Mustafa first converse in the resort’s Turkish baths, the talk is interrupted by an odd coughing fit. This seemed extrinsic to the story, and now I think that it represented the teenage reader’s coughing in the cold.

Later, Gustave sends a letter to the hotel from prison. As Zero reads the letter to the staff in their ridiculously cramped dining room, we see the concierge standing at a podium. It’s the same one from the hotel, but aligned behind him on one side are his fellow prisoners; on the other, the guards. All listen as attentively as a gospel choir would to a preacher’s sermon. Oddly, it seems to be snowing inside the prison.

A few things are happening in this scene. One is that Zero’s telling makes Gustave (or at least his overheated rhetoric, and the esteem in which he was held by the hotel staff) seem larger than life. This is partly due to how the young Zero perceived the concierge and partly due to how Zero came to view his friend through the warped prism that is inevitably imposed by the passage of many years.

Some of the strangeness of the scene also comes from the author, who consciously or not lionizes Gustave as he retells Zero’s tale. And some of it comes from the reader herself, who like the writer is envisioning many people, places and events that she has never seen. I believe the snow is the intrusion of real life into the reading experience as a small snow flurry moves over the cemetery where the teenager is sitting.

My theory explains — or justifies, if you will — many of the movie’s silly and melodramatic flourishes, such as the aforementioned corny special effects and the unnatural aftermath of Gustave’s and Zero’s matching bloodied noses. It also helps reconcile the fact that young Zero, as portrayed by Revolori, seems extremely unlikely to grow into old Zero, whose shoes are filled by the distinctly more Caucasian actor F. Murray Abraham.

I think, actually, that the teenager is not just reading The Grand Budapest Hotel but re-reading a beloved tale. At the beginning, the author’s introduction — he directly addresses the camera — is interrupted by a young boy’s horseplay. This is another external intrusion, but not due to what’s happening to the reader at that moment. Instead, this is the teenager is recalling her younger self being distracted from an earlier reading of the book by her rambunctious little brother.

This also accounts for us seeing the almost whimsical Zig-Zags menacing Zubrowka, rather than the Nazis who blitzed through much of Europe as the 1930s transitioned into the 1940s. And it would legitimize the way that Jason Schwartzman’s hotel employee ridiculously backs into and then tiptoes out of frame in a shot just as Zero is about to introduce us to Gustave.

No worker would do that in real life. But that’s how a reader might visualize a character as he transitions from the forefront of the developing story to its margins.

Maybe I’m overthinking this; perhaps Anderson and company are just trying to be cute for cuteness’s sake. After all, the young boy who disrupts the author’s introduction seems to be billed as the author’s grandson, which would invalidate my entire hypothesis.

In the end, if any of this sounds interesting to you, and especially if you’ve enjoyed Anderson’s past films, then I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is for you. (It’s also pretty suitable for younger audiences, in my opinion.) On the other hand, if this seems contrived, you’d be quite safe to give it a miss.

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