Revolori and Ronan in Grand Budapest Hotel. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Film Advent Calendar: The absurdist whimsy of the Grand Budapest Hotel

  • One of the most exquisitely shot films in recent times
  • Story about grief and regret told in the absurdist genre
  • December 1st on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

Wikipedia defines the absurdist genre as focusing on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life. The related whimsical genre is defined by a quirky sense of humour.

A more perfect definition for Wes Anderson’s filmography you could not find and really I could have chosen any of his films to represent this genre. However, I think Grand Budapest exhibits all that Anderson has learned through his career and is a more complete and enjoyable film for it.

Scene from the Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in the Grand Budapest Hotel. Credit: 20th Century Fox

The Grand Budapest Hotel was released in 2014 starring Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori alongside a number of Wes Anderson regulars including Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton in smaller roles.

The film follows Gustave H (Fiennes), the concierge of the titular hotel and his young apprentice Zero (Revolori) as they become unwittingly wound up in a conspiracy involving the death of a rich countess and a priceless piece of art.

On paper, the film sounds like it should be a madcap adventure, but when you see it, you realise it’s really a film about futility, regret and death told in a deliberately dissonant jovial manner.

The story is narrated by an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who is retelling his adventure to a writer (Jude Law) staying at the hotel, being one of a few people to genuinely express interest in the former’s story.

The older man is talking about his grief and regret as someone who lost everything that mattered to him but inherited a fortune he has no desire or need for. The story is told in such a layered way that you can enjoy it while it happens and yet immediately feel wistful at its conclusion.

But the story isn’t just told by the plot, it’s also told by the way it has been shot.

Scene from Grand Budapest Hotel
Willem Dafoe in the Grand Budapest Hotel. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Not everyone will notice the differences in framing, but it’s a key part of the story. The aspect ratios are appropriate for each time period the story is set in, but it goes beyond that as the wider Cinemascope aspect ratio used in the 60s scenes shows the emptiness of the now declining hotel, whereas the thinner aspect ratio of the 30s/40s scenes crams so much detail in to such a small space that it feels busier and more alive.

The design of the hotel, the miniatures used in the outdoor shots of the Alpine landscape and the various camera trickeries and stop motion elements used in ‘action’ scenes are not just beautiful; each frame is somewhere between a renaissance painting and a Lowry depiction of bleak landscapes.

The jovial atmosphere is heightened by the exaggerated performances of the actors and deliberately so. As the older Zero gets more into his story, the characters become more charicatured, but when he remembers a particular emotion, they become more human again. It’s no accident that Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the love of Zero’s life is the only character portrayed as sane in the film, just as it’s no accident that Gustave is incredibly over the top and Dmitri (Brody) is a pantomime villain.

The film is fun and bizarre, but is told through the emotions of its narrator which gives it a beating heart. Very few other filmmakers could even dream of achieving this balance.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from the Grand Budapest Hotel
Edward Norton in the Grand Budapest Hotel. Credit: 20th Century Fox