Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a comedy of manners, a fiction of facades. It centers primarily on one of Anderson’s typically eccentric characters, the concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose entire existence is based around the upholding of customs. At The Grand Budapest, he keeps the hotel running like a finely tuned motor, a job which, in addition to all the usual duties and responsibilities, sees Gustave indulge the fantasies of the wealthy old women who stay at luxury resort, taking on the role of their lover. The setting is the early 1930s, but the locale is an imaginary parallel world, something like Austria, but fictionalized to allow Anderson to twist this world into one of his distinctive, absurdist dreamscapes.
Before we get to the year 1932, when most of the action is set, we flashback through a series of framing plots (each shot in their own aspect ratio). In the present day, a young girl approaches the statue of a writer in a cemetery and begins to read a book that shares the title of the movie. The author’s voiceover brings us to the 1980s, when he writes down a story he heard decades earlier. Then we flashback to the 1960s, when the author meets the owner of a decrepit Grand Budapest. This is the man that tells the writer about Gustave and his own adventures as a young Lobby Boy in the concierge’s service.
The movie gets going when the writer (Jude Law) asks the old, wealthy hotel owner why he would own such a terrible investment in the Havisham-like hotel. It is a stunning relic to bygone era, but did he buy it out of nostalgia, sentimentality, or some other sordid romantic rationale? As it turns out, the answer is all of the above and more, and the old man’s story takes us through a twisting tale that sees Gustave’s decrepit lover, an ancient countess (Tilda Swinton), found murdered, and her precious painting left to her concierge suitor. This angers the countess’ son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), and he sends his goon Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to hunt down Gustave.
The man flees with his loyal lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), only to be held-up by pseudo-Nazi troups (with “ZZ” emblems substituted for swastikas) led by the stickler Henckels (Edward Norton). Gustave eventual lands in jail, where his good manners endear him to a prison gang led by Ludwig (Harvey Keitel). Together they hatch an escape. The final act is filled with throw-back slapstick and highly styled hijinks, as Gustave tries to save his precious painting from the Nazi-raided hotel and the Lobby Boy tries to rescue his young lover. In addition to window-dangling, silly shootouts, and rooftop scrambles, the Peter Sellers-esque antics include slalom skiing, ski jumping, and impromptu bobsledding.
Anderson is a director who digests his influences, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel we get a collision of genres peppered with plenty of cinematic borrowing. It’s a story of Fitzgerald-age glam, and Nazi film menace. It’s a comedic caper reminiscence of Sellers’ 1960s comedies, as well as French filmmakers like Jacques Tati and a dash of Jean Renoir. But all of it, of course, is distinctly Wes Anderson: the symmetry of the shots; the facsimile of the sets; the baroque floridity of the language, punctuated by sharp, laconic punch lines. It’s a funny movie that is driven also by a difficult to place melancholy. And like all of his films, a rich romantic spirit runs through The Grand Budapest Hotel.
All of the characters in the new movie are driven by idealized sense of love, duty, and adventure, and the movie pokes fun at — and seems to share — its characters’ nostalgia for a more richly-mannered past. Unlike Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, in which the sense of romanticism drips with adolescent nostalgia, this new movie offers a broader, more madcap scenario. That leads to a movie with less dramatic weight, but plump with the pure joy of scintillating storytelling and richly populated with an ensemble of silly, exaggerated, but distinctively human characters.
In addition to creating a sense of distance and time — of weaving the story through the voices of a number of storytellers and the filter of bygone sensibilities — The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s narrative framing devise also feels self-referential. Anderson is a filmmaker fascinated with how style becomes substance — how the meaning of a story is affected by the way that story is told. Curiously, this new film is is dedicated to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a novelistic stylist who, like Anderson, was often critically dismissed as superficial. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson appears to making a case for his own artistic project. In a final scene we see the sought-after painting that energized the entire, ridiculous antics of the film. It is crooked on the wall, overlooked and unappreciated by the hotel’s new staff. The former lobby, now owner, who has finished sharing his story with the writer, walks over and straightens it on the wall. It is a gesture that participates in a metaphor that repeats throughout the movie: the storyteller as caretaker, the artist as concierge, underscoring the vital necessity of the servant who is always ready to please.