The Sober Frivolity of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's latest film is among his daffiest—and also, arguably, his most grown up.

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.

As the fastidious yet feisty Gustave, Fiennes is a delight. Whether he is engineering the perfect stay for his hotel guests or making new friends in prison, there is an imperviousness to his solicitude. For all his delicate mannerisms—he addresses strangers as “chaps” and “darlings”—Gustave possesses an underlying strength and dignity that suggest a farcical variation on Don Cheadle’s performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. (Fiennes obtained the role of Gustave after Johnny Depp dropped out, leaving unanswered for now the question of whether an Anderson-Depp pairing would prove sublime or intolerable.) As the young Zero, Revolori is primarily the straight man, and he fulfills this obligation expertly, another in a series of young performers (along with Schwartzman in Rushmore and Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom) ably directed by Anderson. And as our narrator, F. Murray Abraham reminds again, as he did last year in Inside Llewyn Davis, of the Hollywood vagaries that allowed someone of his extraordinary talent to all but vanish from the big screen for three decades.

The comedy in The Grand Budapest Hotel is among the broadest yet undertaken by Anderson—it includes, for instance, a cat being thrown out a window—and it hurtles toward the viewer with reckless velocity. There is much running and fighting and yelling and shooting. (And, yes, sledding.) But amid the frenzied hubbub, there are intimations of a darker, sadder history unfolding—in the dilapidation of the communist-era hotel in the frame narrative, and in the multiplying gangs of 1930s-era military police in the central story. This subtext becomes explicit as the tale of Gustave H. concludes with an unhappy swerve, and we return to the present-day girl paying her graveside respects under a leaden sky. For any who might have missed the cues, an onscreen coda describes the film as “inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig,” the Austrian Jewish writer who committed suicide in 1942 at the age of 60.

Those who are not fans of Wes Anderson’s work—and some who are—may find this appropriation awkward or unearned. And indeed there are no Nazis or Soviets, per se, in Anderson’s fable, any more than Zubrowka is a genuine place. But the mid-century sorrows of the real world tether the frivolities of Anderson’s make-believe one, lending gravity to the wistfulness and the air of fading innocence that have been among the principal themes of his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel may not be Anderson’s best film—though it is among them—but it is, unexpectedly, perhaps his most grown up.