Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a cinematic confection so sumptuously decadent that, like the titular resort, it must be savored and dined within repeatedly. Exceedingly gracious, Anderson throws out the most inviting red carpet and exquisite beguilements with his reliable repertory of A-list talent. Yet, there is something haunted waiting in the wings about the stately affair; the Matryoshka doll-like narrative, maintaining the expected hilarity associated with its auteur, ultimately reveals a contrastive element to the splendor. Simply put, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most ambitious film to date, lingering in your presence long after check out.
Inspired partially by the writings of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel imagines the fictional European nation of Zubrowka, likely located somewhere between Vienna and the land of Lord Mandrake’s birth, on the eve of fascism. However, the political climate of the era bothers M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) little since he must perform his duties as concierge with as much glamour as the ostentatious hotel situated in the height of the Alps. An effete man, M. Gustave still rules his hotel with a velvet glove, which compliments his consummately dapper, plum attire. It is accommodation in the morning for the guests, and scripture (as according to the Book of Gustave) for the staff at night, with maybe just a little bit of time for canoodling the oldest of visiting matrons during after-hours (Gustave is a man of many contradictions).
And yet, the story is not his. Despite dominating the narrative, these 1930s shenanigans are relayed through the devoted eyes of Gustave’s newest bellboy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who is recounting these events 30 years on, after he has become the owner of the no longer “Grand” Budapest Hotel. An undocumented immigrant who fled wars in the Middle East, Moustafa follows Gustave rapturously, even after the concierge finds himself as the guest for an extended stay at a nearby correctional institution. It is all an unfortunate misunderstanding due to the death of Gustave’s recent gray conquest, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who has departed under mysterious circumstances and whose son, Dmitri (Adrian Brody), fingered Gustave as the murderer. Gustave impulsively taking the Madame’s priceless Renaissance painting, “Boy With Apple,” after she willed it to him probably did not help this situation. Soon, Zero and his whirlwind soulmate, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), are planning for Gustave’s release, and a civilized adventure is undertaken to clear the blood splotch by Gustave’s good name.
Actors go their whole careers searching for roles like M. Gustave. The personification of incongruity, Gustave is a wonderful creation that Fiennes illuminates in his first collaboration with Anderson. A figure who can demand both perfection from his employees, but also on occasion swear like a sailor and mispronounce the word fillet, Gustave is too smooth by half and initially seems the grifter who smiles his way into old ladies’ pockets like Zero Mostel. However, just as Gustave’s soft gestures mislead one to doubt the levels of his determination and even bravery, so too do his experienced tastes contradict a man who is simply a step out of time. Like his shimmering hotel, the flashback journey to the 1930s still leaves Gustave feeling a man too late to the game of life. Gustave and the Budapest probably would have been more at home in the Belle Époque period than in a time when each nearing death is more grisly than the last.
This incredible character study is achieved in part because The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most fully realized world yet constructed from Wes Anderson’s imagination. He has assuredly built his own pocket universes before, as seen in the adoring public for the wunderkind family of The Royal Tenenbaums and the sheer fact that The Life Aquatic’s Steve Zissou could be a hit documentarian filmmaker. Nonetheless, there is an entire fictional history built around the Grand Budapest and the greater alpine utopia of Zubrowka. From the history of the transitioning government officials, epitomized by the truly sociable fascist Capt. Albert Henckels (Edward Norton), to the legendary baked artworks of Mendl’s, where Agatha works, it is a detailed kingdom built in the bubbly pastels of Anderson’s well-known hand.
Thus, Anderson’s intentional departure from this early splendor is all the more fascinating. The director half-jokingly told me that it’s because this is his first movie with an actual bit of plot, yet there is more to it than that. The Grand Budapest Hotel intricately examines the prisms of nostalgia that deceptively bind all things together. By its definition, nostalgia imagines a world more perfect than the present due to forced perspective, but early 1930s Europe at best could be seen as the deep breath before the plunge into the continent’s darkest hour. After all, the credited Zweig, a literary giant of his time who ran in the same circles as Freud, took his own life in 1942 over a depression from the seemingly unending spread of Nazism. While this movie avoids those downer inclinations, it is told in a carefully constructed artifice dependent on multiple unreliable narrators.
The film itself begins with a modern young woman reading a novel by an author, who published the book in 1985, based on his chance encounter with an older Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in 1969. Only in the author’s literary retelling of that conversation do we travel to the time of M. Gustave and his relatively wacky adventures circa 1932. Each era is brilliantly complimented with a contrasting color palate and even aspect ratio. The modern era is in the common theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, while the aspect ratio explodes into true widescreen 2.35:1 for the heyday of 1960s CinemaScope, before culminating in the classic 1.33:1 Hollywood standard of yesteryear. The tone of each transition matches accordingly. The sequences in the 1960s are drab and deliberately paced with the lyricism of a writer (personified in these scenes by Jude Law), but the movie becomes as brisk as the early 1930s talkies under Gustave’s stewardship. The washed out garish ‘60s oranges are replaced by the colors of royalty, red and purple, and Gustave is a king on his small hill. The accuracy of any of these exploits thusly comes into question when the full frame version of a hotel lobby deliberately evokes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Yet, for whatever other influences, many of them including Ernst Lubitsch and very early Billy Wilder, my mind is repeatedly drawn to the shocking thriller elements apparent throughout the story. By the third act, comedy is edged into the periphery when there are several sequences that take on a Hitchcockian quality; one in particular is inspired by a scene from Torn Curtain (1966) with violence that is more than complimentary to this European moment. Predators stalk prey through charmingly elegant death traps and for the first time, formal niceties are strikingly absent.
Still, this movie remains at its core a brilliant Wes Anderson creation. The vibrant color scheme of this country and the muted restraint of nearly every actor, each speaking with their own authentic accent, forms a world entirely fabricated, but inherently true. For over a decade, it has been Anderson’s way to reflect a beautifully photographed and precisely realized laugh out of the chaotic mess that is our reality. But with The Grand Budapest Hotel, there is something more acute and painful about that vision, a hypnotic carousal that knowingly, and abruptly, must end before such a story can ever truly begin.