The film infolds in a comically elaborate nesting structure: the bulk of its story is told in flashback within flashback within flashback. It’s a way of making us conscious of how much memory and imagination have had their way with what we’re promised by the man known only as Author (Tom Wilkinson in one layer, Jude Law in another) is exacting in its fidelity to the true story. It’s also a way of emphasizing the distinctive balance between realism and artifice that Wes Anderson has been carefully cultivating over the last two decades. An elegy for a lost world that closely resembles but is not exactly our own—nostalgia for something that never was—The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the most perfect expression of that balance yet.
Inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), much of the action is set in the 1930s, in the titular alpine hotel, itself nested in the fictional Zubrowka, a central European republic gradually sliding under the control of a thuggish foreign power à la Nazi Germany. Dark times loom, yet at the Grand Budapest all efforts are made to stall time, to maintain a rarified air. Its dandyish proprietor, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), is especially devoted to his elderly wealthy female guests, whom he ensures are pampered in every way, including erotically, a duty he happily takes on himself. Over the course of the film Gustave will take the adolescent Middle Eastern refugee lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) under his wing. The plot quickly thickens: one of Gustave’s cherished clients dies, leaving him an invaluable painting, stoking the ire of her ingrate sociopath son (Adrien Brody). Gustave is accused of murder, is actually guilty of theft, sort of, is imprisoned, breaks out of prison, goes on the lam and is forced to prove his innocence. All the while he and Zero become the closest of allies. “We’re brothers,” says Zero during a pivotal scene, echoing a key themes of nearly every Anderson movie.
Colour-coordinated pageantry, over-abundant signage and streaming lateral movement through constructed sets in real places provide constant pleasure. The film is a stunning gallery of moustaches, from Zero’s penciled-on to what looks like a charcoal-drawn medieval gate framing Jeff Goldblum’s lovely mouth. The tone is madcap, mannered, an irreverent ode to effeminate men and sexual ambivalence, always rushing along at silent comedy speed, a hurried walk propelled by anxiety and terror yet tempered by a hilariously scrupulous formality. The low-affect performances from a cast teeming with beloved actors, many of them Anderson vets (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel, to name a few), are uniformly sublime, Fiennes most of all. (Why does this guy not do more comedy?)
The Grand Budapest Hotel keeps us aware always of the brutality and doom blackening its margins by working strenuously to downplay it—an approach more poignant than any direct or ostentatiously emotive alternative. A destination in its own right, as opposed an upscale crash-pad, the hotel is a refuge, a place where the linens are always crisp and the flowers fresh. Everything in this film is a form of refuge from hardship, conflict, loneliness: a lovingly sculpted pastry, a thoughtfully arranged room, a beautifully designed ski-chase sequence, a job well-executed and acknowledged as such, a proscenium that encases all the action, behaviour and opulence and never falls away. The elegant handmade craftsmanship of Anderson and his collaborators is here, at your service, in even the darkest hours.