The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is about murder and intrigue and art theft and prison breaks and fascist takeovers and the eroding civility of the leisure class, and yet, it never sheds the feeling that it’s in danger of floating away. This may be because it is also about secret concierge societies and throwing cats out of windows and excessive cologne and pastries that are used both for bribing and smuggling digging tools into a prison. The movie is by Wes Anderson, which means that it is gorgeously photographed and exquisitely art-directed and that you never know which famous person is going to turn up next, wearing a new immaculate costume. It also means that it’s tethered to reality by the most tenuous of threads. Every director films life through their own imagination; we are lucky that Anderson’s is more lively than most.
The story begins right now as a girl visits the grave of a famous author. We are then taken to 1985, and the Author (Tom Wilkinson) is dictating one of his books with a few interruptions from his rambunctious son. Suddenly, it’s the late ’60s and the Young Writer (Jude Law) is the guest at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which was once the finest hospitality palace in the Republic of Zubrowka, perhaps of all fictional Europe. Now the hotel is rather empty and falling apart, festooned in mod oranges and blues that make it look like a Pan-Am stewardess with a concierge. This concierge is Monsieur Jean (Jason Schwartzman), who, like the building he presides over, seems bored and detached. The writer is intrigued by the presence of a new guest, a magnificently bearded man named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), whom Monsieur Jean reveals is the owner of the hotel. Moustafa knows the writer’s work and wonders if he can’t share his own story. And thus the real tale begins, in 1932, with the finest concierge the Grand Budapest ever had, Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes).
Each of these trips further into history comes with a different visual style, both in the decoration (despite the grandness of the ’30s style, I was most drawn to the garish ’60s, and the movie makes a sly reference to the relative immovability of men’s fashion as Young Writer can wear the exact same coat in 1968 and 1985 without looking out of touch) and the aspect ratio, as the more modern the setting, the wider the screen. The movie mainly takes place in the ’30s where Anderson has chosen to choose an aspect ratio that is boxy, akin to television. The effect is subtle at first but, near the end, when we begin to travel forward in time, the expanse of the image is startling.
Gustave tirelessly works to keep the reputation of the hotel spotless; he is in command of every detail from the flower arrangements to many of the wealthier guest’s bedfellows (which often include himself). His new lobby boy is Zero (Tony Revolori), Mr. Moustafa as a young man, and under Gustave’s wing does Zero roost. “He was the most perfumed man I ever met,” Moustafa remembers of Gustave in voiceover (one of the joys of the movie is F. Murray Abraham’s voiceovers, which he should be obligated to do every time he makes a film). Like many a Wes Anderson movie, “most perfumed” is a good enough reason to create a paternal bond.
One day, the paper announces that Zubrowka is on the verge of war, but the more troubling news for the Grand Budapest Hotel is the death of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), the 84-year-old sometime lover of Gustave’s and the matriarch of the well-heeled Desgoffe-und-Taxis family, all of whom have descended upon Madame D.’s wake to find out where the money is bequeathed. Everyone is shocked to find that Madame D. has left her prized painting–Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger’s masterpiece Boy with Apple, unquestionably the world’s finest privately owned piece of art–to Gustave. Madame D.’s family is outraged, particularly her brash son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his personal hit man Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who vow to not only keep Gustave from the painting but to pin his mother’s murder on him.
Gustave and Zero steal the painting (and replace it with a Sapphic artistic downgrade that, unbelievably, goes unnoticed for some time) and head back to the Grand Budapest. Soon war has broken out, Gustave has been arrested and Zero and his mentor have to do their best to stay one step ahead of the murderous Jopling and the fascist conquerors, led by Henckels (Edward Norton), all while Zero balances his budding relationship with the lovely baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who has a birthmark on her face in the exact shape of Mexico (and only slightly smaller), with maintaining middle Europe’s most renowned hotel.
Just on the basis of the plot (and this has been just a partial synopsis, merely the set-up), this is Anderson’s zaniest confection since The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which was an actual cartoon, unlike Grand Budapest, which is just cartoonish in tone. In fact, there are many aspects of it that owe a lot to animation as the façade of the mountains and the hotel itself are made of models. A whole skiing sequence is made through stop-motion photography, which, though clearly fake, is no less exciting. Characters are often seen in profile or in silhouette scurrying back and forth faster than possible. It has the frenetic energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Between these little flourishes, the changing of aspect ratios and Anderson’s increasingly interesting camera angles, camera movements and editing bravura, Anderson has created his most distinctive and complete universe since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2005).
Anderson seems to have an unlimited enthusiasm for details and a fanaticism for getting things right. And yet, his aesthetic isn’t smothering like other visual perfectionists. Take the fictional painting, Boy with Apple. This aptly titled piece is a study in period-perfect Habsburgian mannerism; it easily passes as the real thing. Yet, a similarly detail-obsessed director, Stanley Kubrick say, would take himself way too seriously to allow the painting to be placed on the wall with an outrageous piece of erotica that gets a laugh, especially a piece of erotica that is an actual painting from a real-life Austrian master Egon Schiele. The irony of watching a man rage about having his fictional masterpiece replaced with an actual one is delicious. Kubrick had a sense of humor, and it could be broad, but it never extended to the look of his movies. With Anderson, some of the best jokes are in the corners of the frame, like the door, seen briefly behind Monsieur Jean, which has the words “Keep This Door Closed at All Times” painted on it, invalidating its purpose as a door. There’s also something subversive in the way the fascists, with their swastika- and SS-inspired emblem, are undercut by the hotel itself, as their intimidating flags fly in front of the hotel’s pink exterior. And what is one to make of the fact that, buried in a regal castle of great art, furniture and architecture is the world’s most out-of-place cactus? Anderson creates worlds with tongues firmly in their cheeks.
There is a lot of fun to be had at the Grand Budapest, which includes cameos by Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel, and we frequently do. Fiennes is given the most time onscreen and deserves it, presenting the typical Anderson lead: a man of shallow humanity but deep tastes. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that the broadness and the pace lost some of the pathos that Anderson can usually concoct. All his movies, in one way or another, focus on the idea of family, both assumed and by blood, but those familial bonds never fully form here, and when they are meant to, they’re more forced. Gone is the poignancy he can so often render about coming-of-age. Rushed over is the exquisite sharpness of begrudging fatherhood. None of this dooms The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has more than enough to satisfy and to make it the best movie of the young year; it’s just we’ve been spoiled by Anderson’s cinematic gateaus that are sumptuously decorated but are a little richer. I suppose that is like asking to have your cake and eat it too.