Beautiful speeches are interrupted by spats of obscenities, a wonderful portrait is replaced with a gaudy sketch of two women fornicating, and a once glorious hotel ages into a gaudy mausoleum. At times, the liberal use of the vulgar and profane seems little more than a means to induce laughter. However, as the film develops, there becomes a point to it all, a beautiful, wondrous reason for all the dirty jokes and foul language. In the midst of all the obscenities, there is a man.
M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is the concierge for The Grand Budapest Hotel. He runs the hotel to a high standard of excellence and takes the new lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing. Gustave also runs a racket where he seduces many of the rich, elderly widows who come to the hotel. When one of his lovers dies, leaving behind a great fortune, Gustave and Zero begin a quest to make her estate their own.
In Gustave, the film captures the human crisis of identity. At first glance, Gustave is a posh, polite gentleman, eager to serve, gentle and beautiful. But in private, he’s prone to a wicked tongue, deceit and cruelty. At first, it’s simply him expressing revulsion at the color of the nails of one of his lovers, later he’s colorfully stringing together expletives in fits of pure rage.
This outward appearance of civility thinly veils a monstrously foul and spiteful man. His many recitations of poetry are interrupted by uncontrollable spats of profanity, moments of expressing empathy are lost as his vanity and selfishness overwhelms him. It’s astounding how a man civil enough to offer a monstrously frightening-looking man a bowl of soup with sincerity later screams every curse that comes to his mind.
Ralph Fiennes performance is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Here is a man whose career has been mixed between of portraying both men of great civility and some of the most wicked and evil characters to appear on the movie-screen. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, he effortlessly oscillates between the kind, disarming concierge and the vindictive and spiteful con-man. It might be his most complicated and elegant performance.
And while these attributes allow the film to tease out the nuances of a man, as a piece of filmmaking, director Wes Anderson uses the visual medium to further reinforce these ideas. The idea of artifice and fakeness is brought to the forefront with the many miniatures of the film, which are played up as plastic and artificial, reinforcing that what is seen at first glance may not be genuine.
The film also contains a modern-day framing device where Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the current owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel, narrates the whole tale to a Young Writer (Jude Law). Narration by Jude Law or F. Murray Abraham comes at awkward times and intertitles compartmentalize the story. While one could attribute these elements as the ticks of Anderson’s signature style, here they function elegantly into the idea of fabrication and phoniness.
The framing device gives the film a much-needed distance in order to make a judgment call about the man Gustave. The entire film demonstrates how he’s a two-faced man, polite, sweet and disciplined in public, but vulgar, self-centered, and greedy when he lets down the mask. But Moustafa concludes that amid all this ugliness, there’s something beautiful about Gustave and it’s undeniable that there’s something endearing and likable about the man.
The Grand Budapest Hotel draws a caricature of humanity, an ugly and gaudy and cruel portrait of a man, but one that still captures great beauty and majesty in these vulgar creatures. It does it without moralizing and without giving Gustave some grand moment of redemption. It does it by showing the audience a man they should hate and making them love him. And in Gustave, amid all the lies, vulgarities and selfishness, demonstrates same love towards other human beings and there’s something damn beautiful about that.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing