Is it possible to make a semi-tragic wartime noir that’s shot primarily in shades of pastel?
Judging from Wes Anderson’s latest signature whimsy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the answer is yes. By turns a whodunit, a prison-break movie, and an ode to high-end hotel conciergery, the movie is among Anderson’s daffiest to date. (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou has it beat by a nose.) Yet for all its visual baubles and deadpan comedy, it is shot through with nostalgia, melancholy, and deep echoes of historic loss. I’m not sure that a confectionary fable set against so bleak a backdrop ought to succeed. But for me it did, brilliantly.
The film opens with a series of narratives nested within narratives like Russian dolls. A girl in the present day pays tribute at the grave of a Central European author. Flash backward in time to the author himself (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, explaining the genesis of his book The Grand Budapest Hotel. As a younger man (now played by Jude Law, who also inherits voiceover duties from Wilkinson), he had visited a hotel by that same name in 1968, a semi-defunct and virtually unpopulated hulk in the fictional nation of Zubrowka that had once served as a glamorous mountain retreat for the uppermost of the upper classes. There, he met the aging owner, Mr. Mustapha (F. Murray Abraham, who will take over narration duty for the bulk of the film), who described to him the hotel’s shimmering heyday in the 1930s.
Back then, Mr. Mustapha was a mere lobby boy, known as “Zero” (Tony Revolori), the pupil and protégé of celebrated concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is a prim and fussy perfectionist—copiously perfumed yet notably filthy of tongue—whose devotion to service includes, well, servicing the many rich, elderly ladies among the hotel’s clientele. (“She was 84,” Zero exclaims in disbelief when Gustave reveals one of his paramours. “I’ve had older,” Gustave replies breezily.)
When one among Gustave’s coterie of intimate acquaintances, Madame M. (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable under wizening prosthetics), passes away, Gustave is summoned to her wake, where he discovers that she has bequeathed to him an invaluable painting entitled Boy with Apple. Madame M.’s covetous progeny take this news poorly, in particular her malevolent son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who tasks his homicidally inclined bodyguard (Willem Dafoe) with reacquiring the portrait. Plots and counter-plots ensue, involving theft and murder, imprisonment and flight, secret societies and missing wills.
Anderson’s customary affectations are all very much in evidence: the marzipan palette; the finicky, meticulous compositions; the sentimental attachment to bygone relics, here ranging from macaroons and rotary phones to funicular trams and striped prison outfits. Also scattered ornamentally throughout the film are small roles for a great many members of Anderson’s extended troupe, including (in addition to those already cited) Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jason Schwartzman. Mathieu Amalric and Saoirse Ronan also make appearances, as an ill-fated domestic and as Zero’s oddly birthmarked love interest, respectively. Though few of these performers are offered very much to do, they complete Anderson’s set dressing with great aplomb.