Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a delightful, melancholic, jovial, tragic, heartwarming, heart-wrenching and delicious film. It’s a wonder to behold, a delicately crafted work held together by a fabulous comic performance from Ralph Fiennes. With his latest film, Anderson refines his unique style, one that is literate and visually sumptuous, full of perfectly framed symmetrical compositions. It may take place in an alternate universe, one that is almost fairy-tale like, yet recognizable. And, unlike his previous film “Moonrise Kingdom,” this is a film full of heart.
Anderson’s worlds are full of readers and writers and odd men and women, and this one is no different. The first scene may feature a young girl walking towards the monument of an unnamed writer in the fictional city of Lutz in the equally fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, but doesn’t properly start until she cracks open a book by this writer titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Cut to 1985 as the author (Tom Wilkinson) addresses his radio audience while being interrupted by his grandchild. His narrative takes us back to 1968 when a younger version of himself (Jude Law) meets the then-proprietor of the now decrepit hotel, Mr. Zero Moustafa (the wonderful F. Murray Abraham). There, over a fanciful dinner, Moustafa proceeds to tell the story of the hotel’s legendary concierge, Gustave H. (Fiennes), the heart and soul of the Grand Budapest Hotel and mentor to the young Zero (Tony Revolori).
And so begins the actual story, taking us back to that day in 1932 when Zero’s and Gustave H.’s paths crossed. Gustave is one smooth operator: he rules over his staff like a kinder, gentler version of “Downton Abbey”’s Mr. Carson while offering his “services” to the wealthy and mostly elderly women who stay at the hotel. Elegant and profane, Gustave is, as Moustafa says at the end of the film, a man whose “world had vanished before he entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with marvelous grace.”
One of these women, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton under pounds of ageing makeup) leaves him a priceless painting after she dies under suspicious circumstances, but her family, led by her fascism-loving son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) would much rather leave the smarmy concierge painting-less and behind bars. Zero and Gustave proceed to steal the painting right from underneath the family’s noses; unbeknownst to them, a second and most recent will has been hidden behind the painting by Madame’s faithful butler (Mathieu Almaric). This leads to a series of madcap chases, a prison escape involving delicately designed pastries and Harvey Keitel, assassinations, one cat thrown out of a window, gunfights and a mysterious cabal known as The Society of Crossed Kings (whose membership includes the likes of Bill Murray and Bob Balaban). Zero even finds time to fall in love with a baker’s assistant with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek (don’t ask) who turns into an ally in Gustave and Zero’s cause.
Shot in 35mm. –Anderson is that rarity in cinema today: a creator who still believes in the power of celluloid to create magic– and using three different aspect ratios for each of the time periods, “The Great Budapest Hotel” offers a veritable buffet of visual goodies that includes stop-motion animation, miniatures, lateral tracking shots, and speeded-up shots, among others. However, the pleasures are not merely visual: the dialogue is crisp, smart, witty, and urbane. And in the hands and voices of Ralph Fiennes and F. Murray Abraham, it sings a melancholic song of happier, elegant –although not necessarily better– times, before the entire continent became enveloped by the dark forces of war, fascism, and communism. Alexandre Desplat’s marvelously whimsical score, inspired by Eastern European folk music, adds to the film’s zip. His final balalaika-driven composition during the end credits is, in and of itself, a jewel in Desplat’s already rich crown of movie scores.
But even with all its audiovisual delights, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” truly comes alive whenever Fiennes enters the stage and dies when he leaves it. Gustave H. gives him that rare opportunity to flex his comedic muscles. He plays Gustave as a man who dares look adversity in the eye and with a smile, a man with his own code of conduct and personal sense of justice, slightly arrogant and vain, a natural born seducer. Anderson and his production team may have created a wonderful, dreamlike facsimile of pre-World War I and II Europe, but it is Fiennes who seduces you into accepting and embracing it.