Year Released: 2014
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan
(R, 100 min.)
Genre: Drama, Comedy
“Let your life dance on the edges of time, like the dew on the tip of a leaf.” Rabindranath Togore
As sweet, light, and indulgent as its signature pastry, this quirky film dances into our spring just when we need some relief from the unrelenting dank weather, cinematic and otherwise.
Wes Anderson, who most recently delighted us with Moonrise Kingdom, that deadpan tale of love and loneliness, penned and directed this. And he is even better in this whodunit.
As in that surprise 2012 summer hit, Anderson also treats his characters with his usual bemused detachment, and many of them border on caricature, particularly the cardboard villains of the piece, especially the leather-coated assassin, played with ruthless abandon by Willem Dafoe.
Adrien Brody is no longer a brilliant Pianist (2002, Best Actor) evading the Nazis, but one of the bad guys here, and like Dafoe, he relishes every dirty deed, raised eyebrow, and none too thinly veiled threat.
You see, his octogenarian mother, Tilda Swinton–a tribute to the expertise of Hollywood’s makeup artists with a wattled neck worthy of Maggie Smith herself–has left her most highly valued painting to the aging lothario-concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave H.
And when they discover a healthy dose of arsenic has helped the afore-mentioned Madame D on to her heavenly reward, poor Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is the prime suspect.
We should not be surprised that the formidable Fiennes (Spider, The White Countess, The Constant Gardener) owns his role, but who have thought he could get his David Niven on without missing a beat, all the while showing us such unsuspected comic wit and timing?
He is affected, arrogant, superficial, and fastidious, but Gustave is also kind, undaunted, and heroically brave, not to mention artlessly frank, as demonstrated in this conversation about the deceased with his Lobby Boy in training, Zero:
M. Gustave H." "She was dynamite in the sack, by the way"
Zero: "She was 84…"
M. Gustave H.: "I've had older."
And his mentorship with Zero (Tony Revolori) is the core of the film, since it shows us every nuance of Gustave’s quirky character. And yet, Revolori is so perfect as the aspiring Lobby Boy, we might dismiss his performance, like the perfection of an Olympic athlete that seems effortless.
Zero is the antithesis of his name. A refugee who has seen his entire family murdered, he tempers his deference for the concierge with a soul that combines innocence and tempered steel. “Don’t flirt with her,” he cautions Gustave when he introduces his sweetheart, Agatha, the little bakery girl who has won his heart. That single repeated admonition says it all with such lightness. In some sense, the Lobby Boy is an equal to the concierge, and they both know it.
Don’t miss this stylized confection, a brief taste of sweetness just before the bitter taste of war that waits in the wings.
Zero’s sweetheart, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), another orphan, works at Mendl’s, a shop that produces the most exquisite pastry gems all boxed in a celebration of pink. They are almost as artistic as the Renaissance painting Gustave has secreted away in the hotel vault– and at least twice as delicious.
In fact, they are so beautiful, the prison guards who inspect these delicate gifts for Gustave do not have the heart to slice them up and look for contraband as they do with the various sausages and breads, which they practically murder. And that’s a relief, since the tarts are stuffed with some very sharp “throat cutters” as well as some fabulous chocolate custard cream.
Our pastry is named Courtesan au Chocolat, which means either “Chocolate Courtier” or “Chocolate Prostitute.” Personally, I favor the latter, which also can be translated into Chocolate Tart, a fine little pun.
All you pastry martyrs out there, here is something to do this weekend. But don’t put any sharp utensils in yours; it might break a molar.
Courtesan au Chocolat Pastry
I – The Pastry
Make a choux pastry of flour, water, butter and eggs. Though correct proportions may vary depending on one’s elevation and humidity, we recommend:
· 1 cup plain flour
· 1 cup fresh water
· 1/4 lb butter
· 4 eggs beaten in a bowl
· A pinch of salt
· A larger pinch of sugar
Bring the water, butter, salt and sugar to a boil. Remove from the fire and quickly mix in the sifted flour. Return to heat for a few minutes, stirring and cook until the dough forms a single lump. Allow to cool just enough to keep the eggs from cooking and stir in very gradually with a strong wooden spoon. Pipe the dough into small, medium and large-sized dollops on a tray. Large tablespoon dollop. Teaspoon dollop. Hazelnut size dollop. Bake in the oven at 350 F (180 C) for about 25-35 minutes. The smaller pastries are best put on a second tray as they will cook more quickly. Remove from the oven and discretely make a small piercing in the choux to allow the steam to escape.
II – The Filling
Once cooled, the large and medium choux should be filled with a crème pâtissière of chocolate, egg yolks, and sugar.
· 1 1/2 cups of whole milk
· Several large pieces semi of sweet chocolate
· 3 egg yolks
· 1/4 cup sugar
· 2 spoons cocoa powder
· 1 tablespoon flour Cornstarch to thicken
Heat the milk gently, and add chocolate, stirring to melt into a rich, almost steaming chocolate milk. Whisk egg yolks, flour, sugar, cocoa and a few spoons of cornstarch into a smooth mixture. Add half of the hot chocolate milk to the bowl, a little at the time, stirring constantly. Then add this mixture back into the rest of the hot milk, stirring over gentle heat for a few minutes until the mixture thickens to a custard. Remove from heat and chill. Once cooled, spoon the chocolate creme into a pastry bag and pipe into the large and medium pastry balls.
III – The Decoration
Prepare a glaze of confectioners sugar, a dash of vanilla and enough milk to achieve the desired consistency. Separate into 3 small bowls and add food color to each – one lavender, one pale green and one pink. Dip each pastry in icing (to the midline) and place it on a tray – the large pastry in the lavender, the medium in the pale green and the small in pink. Allow to dry. Decorate the balls with filigree of white chocolate as desired.
IV – The Assembly
Place a dollop of icing (preferably a pale blue) atop a large pastry ball. Take a medium size ball and press it gently on the larger so it sticks in place. The butter cream should act as a glue. Repeat with one of the small balls atop the first two. Make a small butter cream “star” on the top and place a single cocoa bean on the star as a garnish. Serve fresh.