The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Caper of Whodunnit Romp

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fun, visually stimulating film that suffers from nostalgia and sentimentality and worse – whimsicality for the mere sake of it.


Credit: GQ Magazine.

Some people, myself included, take Wes Anderson very seriously.

But in the ensuing battle over Wes Anderson’s merit as a director (an absurd battle that reminds us that both sides of the coin could very well be characters in a WA movie), the legion of generation Xs waving WA flags (a title he surely cringes at) should perhaps stop for a moment, and to think things through.

And this is coming from me, a member of the legion’s artillery, who has always been ready for some sputtering arguing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper of whodunnit romp.

A young punk girl, ceasing the book of an unknown author, is standing in a cemetery and staring with searching eyes at the brass bust of the author. Flashback, and we see the author (Tom Wilkinson) writing the book. Flashback, to the titular hotel now run-down by Eastern Bloc commie neglect, in the fictional country of Zybrowka, where the author (Jude Law) meets the hotel proprietor – Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

Flashback, Moustafa tells the story of how he came to work as a lobby-boy in the hotel in 1932, and this is the period where most of the story will unravel. The young Zero is impressionable, and his high work ethic is noticed by the hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes with a lightness rarely seen before) who takes him under his wing.

In the tremulous period of inter-war Europe with its bleak promise of fizzing fascism, The Grand Budapest Hotel in its lofty location in the heights of Zybrowka serves as a stronghold for all things “Old Europe,” a Europe before licking the wounds of war, and Wes Anderson’s M. Gustave is the king of the land.

He is a pedant, a dandy with impeccable taste (WA himself perhaps), and his signature scent of “L’Air de Panache” can be smelled in all of the hotel’s nooks and crannies. Where you to look for him there, you may certainly find him in bed with one of the widowed dowagers he courts. He is a perfect representative of the old world, cultured and refined, yet delightfully ambiguous in moral standing.

When one of the widows is found dead (Tilda Swinton in impressive layers of make-up), and her most precious and valuable possession is willed to Gustave, he is immediately suspected of murder. Gustave and Zero escape, with a police inspector (Edward Norton) and the widows scheming son (Adrien Brody) hot on their trail.

*If you haven’t figured it out by now, there are many flashbacks, and even more cameos in true WA fashion *

So the whodunnit plot begins, thick with whimsical story twists, sporting a pickaxe prison break (pickaxe naturally smuggled through a cake), a ghoulish assassin (Willem Dafoe) who commits the most violent acts seen in WA’s oeuvre to date,  the assistance of the “Crossed Keys Society” (a guild of high-standing concierges, naturally) and much more.

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It is really funny, even the funniest WA has ever been

And yet, the truth is that since Owen Wilson retired from the writing team, WA’s movies have gradually weakened. If Moonrise Kingdom was a little bit too precious and bordering on self-parody, GBH is many things WA, but also many of the things that give merit to his critics.

Ever since I first watched Rushmore (a movie whose impact on my life is indelible and cannot be exaggerated), I realized that I would get hooked on this director that had no interest in going through great pains to convince me of his realism. On the contrary, he would go through great pains to show me a fabrication – his characters never sounded like real people or made pretenses to it and his alternate universes were saturated with a hyper-attention to zany detail.

Most critics will agree and then they will become divided whether it is simply “affecting” and without substance, or highly gratifying. I guess it’s a matter of taste. And yet, oddly enough, it was precisely through this fabrication that something real emerged for me.

These cardboard characters were isolated people, terribly at loss for tools to deal with their trauma, to the extent that they shut themselves away from such pain, and instead created their saturated alternate universes around themselves.

The deadpan performances in the midst of frivolity and lightness seemed like they were projecting their own movies and injecting drama as went along, creating whimsy lives around themselves as shelters from their real conflicts. The elaborate sets became the backdrop for people that carried their hearts on their sleeves and manifested it through attention to detail. They were self-involved, tunnel-visioned, but tender and beautiful for that.

In his better movies, he lets his characters mature and overcome such pains (Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums). In GBH, the setup is perfect : the world is heavily filtered by the inflections of remembrance (all those flashbacks) and the characters in this world harp on a code that is under attack (M. Gustave is a hopeless romantic and his friendship with Zero truly honorable in the face of the real turmoil of coming fascism).

However, in the bustle of the fast-paced plot twists, Anderson seems to neglect his characters. When the story comes to a close, the characters remain as delightfully cardboard as they began, mere vehicles for a whodunnit plot. Their frivolity and zany antics are never truly put to a test in a world so terrifying and demanding of conflict, and it has the regretful effect of history passing them by.

What remains is a fun, visually stimulating film that suffers from nostalgia and sentimentality and worse – whimsicality for the mere sake of it.

David Tejer was born in Sweden and raised in a Polish home. He resides in Israel and is a cinematographerRead other articles by David.