After you see The Grand Budapest Hotel, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:
There’s a beautiful three-tiered pastry, frosted in shades of pale pink and mint green, that plays a significant part in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. It comes from an elegant old-world bakery called Mendl’s in the fictional country of Zubrowka, and it’s favored for both culinary and sentimental reasons by Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the formidable establishment named in the title.
That huge pink hilltop hotel is really just a larger and more complex version of the cake, with both in turn nested Russian-doll style inside the even bigger and more elaborate confection that is the movie itself. The Grand Budapest Hotel is both an example of and an elegy for a certain kind of old-world craft, whose passing the story explicitly mourns. The Grand Budapest is to Moustafa—and to its previous owner, the fastidious Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)—what this film, or all his films really, are to Anderson: a lovingly tended alternate universe where the colors are crisper, the work ethic stronger, the friendships more honorable. And like a well-run hotel, a Wes Anderson movie only functions as a complete system, with references, conventions, and running jokes taking the place of bellhops, laundry chutes, and dumbwaiters.
Remember the line in Enough Said when Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character announces she loves dollhouse furniture so much she wants to eat it? As a fellow lifelong aficionado of miniatures, models, and dollhouses, I couldn’t help but salivate at the sumptuous surfaces and cunning design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even when he isn’t using literal stop-motion-animated miniatures (which he does in a few scenes here, including, absurdly and charmingly, during the mountaintop action climax), Anderson seems to be building himself and his cast a space in which to play, as he’s done before most explicitly in The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has become one of our most reliable cinematic bringers of sensory delight: His movies don’t just have colors and sounds but almost as palpable textures, tastes, and smells. (A recurring gag in Budapest involves M. Gustave’s daily self-spritzing with his beloved scent L’Air de Panache, which has been developed as a “concept fragrance” by a French parfumier in one of those whimsical-luxury-product tie-ins that always seem to spring up around Wes Anderson movies.)
Are Anderson’s movies themselves little more than whimsical luxury products? I’m not of that school, though when the director is at his fussiest (as he is here), I can sometimes feel sympathy with its members. It’s been thrilling, in the decade and a half since Rushmore was released, to watch Anderson cultivate both a distinctive visual style and a traveling company of actors, musicians, and behind-the-scenes craftspeople to help realize his idiosyncratic visions. But, as I’ve written elsewhere in the past few years, his moral and political imagination hasn’t always kept pace with his cinematic one—his meticulous attention to surfaces, together with his actors’ trademark uninflected delivery, can sometimes serve as distancing devices to keep messy or painful emotions at bay. (Multiple spoilers from previous Wes Anderson movies in the parenthetical to come: I’m thinking of the Indian boy who drowns in The Darjeeling Limited, the death of Owen Wilson’s character in The Life Aquatic, or the loneliness of the orphaned boy in Moonrise Kingdom.)
In The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson takes on the messiest, most painful subject he’s tackled yet: war. Though the threat that hangs over Zubrowka is, like the country itself, fictional, the atmosphere of Europe between the world wars is unmistakable, as a thuggish occupying army with uniforms bearing an SS-like double-zigzag pattern patrols the trains and borders of the once-elegant Zubrowkan republic, now in decline. Anderson has said that he based the film in part on motifs from the work of the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, a Jew who fled Austria when Hitler came to power and wound up committing suicide in Brazil. And the film’s second main character—the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), M. Gustave’s devoted “lobby boy”—is a refugee from political turmoil himself, a war orphan who’s come to find his fortune in Zubrowka after escaping torture in a fictional Middle Eastern country. (These horrors are recounted in the same rapid-fire, deadpan style as the comic dialogue—an aesthetic choice that, for me, eventually served to flatten out both the story’s sorrow and its joy.)
To explain this movie’s central caper plot, we have to get back to that Russian-doll nesting structure I mentioned earlier, which applies to the movie’s time frame as well. In 1985 a figure known only as “The Author” (played by Tom Wilkinson) sits down to pen a nostalgic memoir about his fond memories of the hotel he visited as a young man. We then flash back to 1968, when a younger Author (Jude Law), visiting the now vaguely Soviet-style hotel, finds himself invited to dine in the Budapest’s vast, near-empty restaurant with the mysterious proprietor, Zero (Abraham). In another flashback, to 1932, which will take up most of the rest of the film, Zero begins to recount his early days at the hotel when, as a very young man, he was taken under the wing of the hotel’s persnickety and dandyish but ultracompetent chief concierge, M. Gustave. Sensing his lobby boy’s gift for what’s now depressingly known as “the hospitality industry,” Gustave resolves to nurture Zero’s budding talent as a hotelier. (Gustave and Zero’s prickly but loving mentor/mentee relationship is not unlike the Jason Schwartzman/Bill Murray connection in what is still my favorite Anderson movie, Rushmore.)
One of Gustave’s defining eccentricities is his weakness for elderly female hotel guests, who he routinely seduces and services, as seen in an early montage that’s unusually raunchy for Wes Anderson. When one of his wealthy paramours, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in some crazy-convincing age makeup), meets with foul play, Gustave is framed for her murder by her malevolent son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody). With Zero’s help (and that of Zero’s true love, a pure-hearted pastry chef played by Saoirse Ronan) Gustave must dig his way out of a maximum-security prison, recover a hidden painting that he’s stolen from the Desgoffe-und-Taxis estate, and escape a merciless hired assassin (Willem Dafoe), all the while maintaining a spotlessly starched shirtfront and trailing a fragrant cloud of L’Air de Panache.
As played with a melancholy rakishness by the handsomer-than-ever Fiennes, M. Gustave is one of Anderson’s more memorable creations—but he’s stranded in a movie that, for all its gorgeous frills and furbelows (including a lush musical score by Alexandre Desplat and a surfeit of charming cameos from Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman, Ed Norton, and Bill Murray), never seemed to me to be quite sure what it was about. Youth, age, rivalry, and mentorship? Nostalgia for a lost way of life? The ineluctable slaughterhouse of 20th-century European history? These are big, dark themes, ideas that the director (who also wrote the screenplay, with a story assist from his friend Hugo Guinness) seems both obsessed by and game to explore. But somehow Anderson never quite lets himself (or his characters, or by extension, us) get to the deepest, darkest places those paths might lead. Though there’s more swearing and more blood than are usually to be found in this director’s work—the unpleasant fate of an estate lawyer played by Jeff Goldblum is as close as Anderson’s ever come to black-comic gore—everything remains in that familiar register of chilly, stylish remove. The voice-over epilogue hastily relates several important characters’ shockingly bleak fates—then quickly gives way to a playful credit sequence scored to sprightly balalaika music. I’d like to think of this as Anderson dancing on the brink of the abyss, but it still feels like he’s leaving a healthy margin between himself and the edge.