The hotel that is the central location in Wes Anderson’s latest film is a massive, two-toned-pink, multilayered wedding cake of a building in a mountainous retreat in the fictitious country of Zubrowka (named after a Polish vodka). In the story within a story within a story that takes place there, the hotel serves as a sort of gaudy museum to a lost era.
Anderson is a miniaturist whose films often seem inspired by the novelty shop and the confectioner’s counter, and fans of his work, from Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom, will find the usual pop-up-book visual style and precision humour, but The Grand Budapest Hotel, his eighth feature, takes us somewhere new: into literary and historical territory.
From the start, it’s clear Anderson is working with a new sophistication both in the vocabulary and structure of the film’s voiceover narrations. We begin within a nested series of stories. A young woman visits the grave of a favourite writer. The writer (Tom Wilkinson) appears, circa mid-eighties, offering a video memoir. The memoir takes us to 1968, where the same man (now played by Jude Law) describes how he was suffering from “Scribe’s disease” and sought a restorative stay at a rundown Alpine spa, the Grand Budapest Hotel.
After a few days, he meets the mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who, over dinner, tells the story of how he came to acquire the building. We move back again, to 1932 (each chronological transition is signalled by a different aspect ratio), when a young Zero (Tony Revolori), sporting a pencil-drawn mustache to look older, first becomes a lobby boy at the hotel under the supervision of the exacting, heavily perfumed concierge, Gustave H., played by Ralph Fiennes in one of the freest and most colourful characters of his career.
Officially bisexual but mostly opportunistic, Gustave doesn’t mind providing extraspecial services for his older clientele, with a preference for anyone who is “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial and blond.” One of his favourites is the doting, 84-year-old Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, or Madame D., played by Tilda Swinton in a cocoon of makeup and prosthetics.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is, ultimately, a murder story – both an internal whodunit and, by extrapolation, the story of the war to come. After a revivifying stay under Gustave’s ministrations, Madame D. returns to her estate and promptly dies. Gustave orders Zero to accompany him to the funeral and the reading of the will, where they learn that Madame has left Gustave a valuable painting. Her nasty family members, led by Madame’s raging son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), are determined to steal it back. A flipping photo album’s worth of characters make their hasty appearances: a butler (Mathieu Amalric), the executor of the will (Jeff Goldblum), a violent family-employed assassin (Willem Dafoe).
Amid these various scrapes, arrests and threats, Gustave remains unflappable, a believer in style even in degraded conditions. The character is a type, but he also appears to have a specific inspiration. Anderson’s film is dedicated to the memory of Stefan Zweig, the prolific Jewish-Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer who was a friend to Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, collaborator of Richard Strauss, a social butterfly and a man almost constantly on the run. Zweig is the inspiration not only for the literary tone of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but for the character of Gustave H., a fastidious yet louche observer of middle-European high society in its final blaze of glory.
As a whole, The Grand Budapest Hotel has recognizable parallels to Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy To Be or Not to Be, except that the Nazis aren’t called Nazis here. The military police are called the ZZ, and are supervised by a tall-hatted, gentlemanly commandant (Edward Norton). The ZZ stop trains and demand passports, and eventually put Gustave in jail, where his social skills prove a hit even among the hardened criminals in their cartoonish striped prison suits. Gustave is aided by Zero, and Zero’s new fiancée, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a girl with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek who works at Mendl’s bakery, an outfit that makes pastries as pink and detailed as the Grand Budapest Hotel itself.
The second half of The Grand Budapest Hotel turns into an action movie, though it’s so zippy and abstract that it erases the line between thriller and Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Along with the madcap action comes violence (a severed head, chopped-off fingers) and, eventually, the intrusion of events too similar to the real history to ignore, which throws cold water on this funny fever dream. Throughout, Anderson invites you to simply look at how densely and precisely he has filled his frames, from the candy-coloured production design, to the fetishistic, precise costumes, to the minimal dance of the camera over this intricately invented world. It’s a world that never quite existed in real life, but that bursts forth from the frames of Anderson’s melancholic, deeply affectionate film.