When a storyteller narrates a story, there is inevitably a certain amount of artistic license, fantastic details that become more fantastic with each retelling. As the story is passed on from one teller to the next, the luminous and the ludicrous increase until they become almost mythologized. A good film director can take advantage of this nature of storytelling, choosing imagery, sets and colors, and turns of speech or action that might not be believable in a straight documentary-type film, but become part of the delight in a storytelling film. “Big Fish” was an example of this, as was “Life of Pi”. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is one of the latest in this storytelling style, and it is quite simply an excellent movie.
It is set up as a story within a story, where the narrator to whom we are first introduced gives way within a flashback to the voice of a second narrator. This second narrator is Zero Moustafa, owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Once the first narrator sets the scene of the hotel as it existed in 1968, Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, who won an Academy award for his role as Salieri in 1984’s Amadeus) takes over and brings us back to his beginnings as a lobby boy (played by Tony Revolori in a debut role) at the hotel in the period between the wars. His manager and idol is the concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), immediately shown to be tremendously effective and capable. We also learn over time of some of the extra attention and services he provides his clientele that make him so popular. Zero and Gustave soon find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, where Gustave himself has been framed for the crime and is sent to prison. With Zero’s help, he escapes and they make a mad journey through the mountains aided by a series of unlikely helpers (including hotel concierge Monsieur Ivan, played in Godfather style by Bill Murray) and pursued by the menacing and murderous Jopling (Willem Dafoe with a black dye job, brush cut and death’s head brass knuckles, leering at every turn as an unredeemably evil goon).
In the end, the various resolutions come fast and furious, piling up on top of each other as quickly as they can be narrated. This is the license of the storyteller: to linger on the entertaining parts of the journey, and to quickly wrap up what would become upsetting or or less engaging if given more screen time. In this manner, the movie manages to keep humor even in dark moments.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is visually rich, and played expertly by actors (other great performances not already mentioned include Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody) who know the comic value of appearing absolutely serious the more ludicrous the scene becomes. While the humor can be a little dark at times, and you should be ready for some well-placed swear words, it’s a delightful bit of storytelling and one of the best movies currently playing.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. Recently, she edited Parvati’s new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, which has gone on to sell out its first two printing runs.