Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel
At the weekend, I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel at the cinema. Having watched the trailer a few times, I was very intrigued about the plot. It appeared to be a comic murder-mystery set in a pink hotel, with an unsuspecting lobby boy as a conspirator. That’s not exactly something you hear about every day! To be honest, the main reason I wanted to see this film was because I knew that Saoirse Ronan had a part in it, and she is one of my favourite actresses (I particularly admire her former roles in Hanna, The Host and How I Live Now). I have been meaning to start reviewing the films that I see, as I have been almost every weekend, without fail, for the past few months, and have always picked up on interesting things that I want to share. I feel that this film is a good place to start, as there are certain things that make it different to anything I’ve ever seen. Although I like writing, articles and reviews are not things I’ve had much experience creating. I hope that as I review more films, my style will take form, and I will improve my technique. For now, I will take a very casual approach, and just spill whatever’s on my mind. So here are my thoughts on particular aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel…
The main character is Monsieur Gustave H. Gustave has one of those typical posh, British accents that is charming and alluring. He is calm and collected in almost every situation, no matter how diabolical, and asserts his authority all the way through the story. He is admirable, intelligent and brave, nonchalant, flirtatious and suave. But most of all, he is unexpectedly sensitive, often reciting poetry at the most inconvenient moments, or using his impeccable manners whilst serving ‘mush’ to some rather brutal-looking crooks in prison. There are so many character traits that make him a fascinating subject throughout the film, and he is definitely a likeable protagonist, whom one can respect greatly for his vitality.
Zero is Gustave’s apprentice, who starts working at the hotel as a lobby boy. At first, he starts off quite submissive and obliging, but you can really see his growth and character development. By the end of the film, he is the one to help Gustave with his escape plan (Gustave shows his appreciation in a very over-the-top manner, complete, of course, with a poetry recital…), he gets married to Agatha (Saoirse Ronan’s character) and he reprimands the new lobby boy (who is presumably hired in his absence). I really loved how this unpretentious boy matured into a real man, and how he helped to move the story along with his own sub-plot and comic persona. He was able to make his own decisions and have an influence on those around him. Despite his namesake, the list of ‘zeros’ at the start begins to pad out as he experiences more on his adventures in Lutz.
Agatha is a minor character in relation to the whole story, but she is a useful tool in plot development. The cast was predominantly composed of male actors, so this delightful (yet cunning) character was like a breath of fresh air. I was moved by Agatha’s response to Zero – I could tell how much she loved him just from the adoration in her eyes. As a side note, it was lovely that Saoirse was able to use her own accent in the film. I find her natural voice so sweet and soothing; I think this added to her character, even though the Irish accent felt a little out of place juxtaposed with the German, French, British and American accents.
I won’t go into much detail about the other characters, but I would like to point out that the villains were truly portrayed as evil antagonists. The black-clad figures were ominous with their metal rings and leather jackets and monstrous motorcycles… I remember one scene where the main villain is at the doorstep of a poor woman’s house and his eyes are barely visible – they’re just consumed in shadows. The lighting really did play an important part in defining him, wherever he was, and I noticed how eerily he appeared and disappeared. Another sinister character is the brother of the woman who is murdered. The reason I mention him is because there’s a particular moment I remember where he is chasing Agatha through the hotel, and the music is just perfect. As the man strides angrily towards her, his motivations, facial expression, general appearance, and emotions are wrapped up so completely by the music that accompanies the sequence. I enjoyed (and feared) that part, simply because the menacing music couldn’t have matched the character any better.
Having mentioned the music briefly, I would like to add a few more comments. My favourite musical moment was when Gustave and Zero were in a monastery, and were told to sing along with the other monks as they filed into the chapel. The music dubbed over the film at this point was quite racy, and fitted in well with the action. However, the clever part was that the tune the monks were singing in the scene matched the music that was dubbed over. So although they were independent of each other, they happened to fit together beautifully, and the fact that the monks were humming/singing/“ahh”ing the perfect notes to the film score made the sequence all the more exciting! It’s quite hard to explain exactly what I’m talking about, but I hope my point is sort of getting put across.
Most of the music for the rest of the film was of a particular style, appropriate for the setting, in my opinion. It was what I imagined the traditional folk music of Lutz to sound like. All in all, it worked well, and added to the schema of the imaginary setting.
The structure of the film was quite interesting. It starts off with a young woman placing a key on a statue, as if paying her respect to the bust. She sits on a bench next to the statue, and opens a book, called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Then we skip to a scene where the hotel manager asks the owner about how he came to own the hotel in the first place. From this point, the different sections of the film are introduced with chapter title screens, and so essentially it is a story within a story within a story. At the end of the core story, the owner finishes narrating the story, and the film finishes with the girl on the bench closing the book. So there is a clear, almost symmetrical structure, and a strong sense of cohesion. I think this added to the story-telling factor of the film, and I liked how this was executed on screen.
Lutz is a fictional European place, with a mixture of French and German-speaking natives. There is a very traditional feel to the setting: everything from the clothes of the characters to the style of the buildings. To me, Lutz felt completely real, and I believed in everything about it. Whoever created this place is a genius!
What I noticed about the setting was the fine use of purpose-made sets and backdrops. Some of the animation (eg. the cable car lift going up to the hotel) was animated, some of the backdrops were hand-drawn or computer-aided designs, and some of the rooms (eg. the hotel’s dining room) felt like they were models. I must emphasise that all of this really was subtle, and did not take away from the high quality of production; rather, on the contrary, it added to the world-building and fantastical element of the setting.
Something else that loosely relates to the setting is the careful placing of props. Some of the sets were very simple-looking (eg. in the prison cells), and yet just by adding something a bit out-of-the-ordinary (eg. photos of provocative women stuck on the prison cell walls), the sets could be completely transformed. To me, it felt like whoever designed the sets paid a lot of attention to detail, and this really paid off.
As I watch more films, I tend to take more notice of how they are being filmed, and how the story is being told through the shots. This film had a very distinct and precise style, which is one of the reasons why it stands out from anything else I’ve ever seen. Every single camera shot had a purpose. Every shot felt necessary. I can’t stress this enough, and it’s one thing that I can really take away from having watched the film. A lot of the shots would focus on a door, for example, just as it was about to be opened by a character; close-ups on faces were less frequent, but helped to gage the character’s raw emotions, for example. One thing I particularly liked was that when characters were on some sort of journey (even just walking from one part of a house to another), you wouldn’t see the whole of it – just snapshots at random points along the journey (eg. just as they are about to go through a door, or are rounding a corner, or are nearing the top of a staircase). It’s as if the director just cut down to absolute minimum footage needed to capture the important moments. And it really works. This is the mechanism that makes the sequences of events so fluid and captivating to watch.
The continuity in the camera shots was very accurate. An example of continuity I can remember is a conversation between Zero (when he’s older) and the hotel manager, in the hotel’s dining room. The shots switch back and forth between their faces, and there’s a daffodil in every shot (in a vase that’s on the table between them), so that you know just how close the characters are, even though they’re not both in the shot simultaneously. This was just one of the techniques that I picked up on whilst watching.
Now we move onto my favourite parts of the story. I have to say that the escape sequences were the most thrilling. The fast pace and full-on action was what made these parts exciting. I particularly enjoyed Gustave’s escape from prison with his inmates. Their route meandered perilously through the building, and you didn’t have a clue where they would end up. Another wild-goose-chase type part was when Zero and Gustave were sent on cable cars near the ski resort, to chase after one of the villains. The repetitive series of events built up a lot of suspense and excitement.
I would like to point out that the film was hilarious in some parts, but there were also instances of extreme gore. The violence came at really random points throughout the film, and because of the generally humorous tone, it was totally unexpected. I couldn’t believe it when a man’s fingers were chopped off, or when a woman’s head was pulled out of a basket! The characters were surprisingly brutal! Maybe the shock of such horrors actually made the film more incredulous, and therefore more comedic? I’m not sure, but the extreme contrast of light-heartedness and goriness worked well in an intriguing way.
So those are my thoughts and interpretations of The Grand Budapest Hotel. As I have taken so long to write this (not that I counted or it felt like a chore), and seeming as you got to the end (if you’re reading this), it would be lovely to have some kind of response. Did you see the film too or are you planning on seeing it? Do you agree with some of the things I picked up on? Maybe you could do me a favour by re-blogging this or posting a comment. Either way, thanks for reading, and let me know what I should see next!