The highly stylized and ever whimsical Wes Anderson has struck again with his latest gem, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A delectably decadent treat, the film unfolds as a kind of matryoshka nesting doll: a story within a story within a story. Peppered with his usual array of players, the troupe is joined by newcomers Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and Saoirse Ronan to stupendous results. The film hums with zealous energy, rife with vulgarity-laced elegance. It hovers, its feet inches above the ground, the ethereal existence of a Wes Anderson creation done to perfection.
The scene opens on a young girl in present-day, a book firmly clutched in her arms, as she visits the gravesite of who we will come to know only as Author. Hotel room keys adorn a bronze bust of the man, reminiscent of the romanticism of attaching locks to bridges. Lifting another layer, we are in the office of Author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, as he recounts his visit to the titular hotel in 1968. You can see where this is going.
In 1968, we encounter a younger Author (now played by Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest Hotel. Shockingly reminiscent of the Overlook, it’s hard to imagine the place as a residence of glamour and class. The wallpaper peels, the orange carpets look as if they haven’t been cleaned in well over a decade, and the tiles crackle and fall from the walls. It’s a sad, desolate place, where the sparse tenants keep firmly to themselves. That is, of course, until our young Author encounters the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the current overseer of the Overlook Grand Budapest. With nary a cajole, Mr. Moustafa agrees to tell Author his life’s story over dinner.
With the final unveiling, we’re taken back to 1932, when the Grand Budapest was in its heyday, and the story can properly begin. Enter the incomparably fastidious Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Almost effeminately mannered and poised, M. Gustave is the picture of grace and class, with delightfully dry smatterings of vulgarity. He is the Grand Poobah of the Budapest, and keeps the place running like clockwork while maintaining a steady roster of octogenarian widows who dote on him at every turn.
The Budapest’s new Lobby Boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori as the young Mr. Moustafa), swiftly becomes M. Gustave’s right hand man as his dearest elderly conquest, Madame D (a remarkably made-up Tilda Swinton) has been mysteriously murdered. The pair swiftly takes off for her estate, wherein they discover that M. Gustave has inherited her most prized possession – a seemingly priceless painting, Boy With Apple.
Madame D’s gold digging family objects to the terms of the will, leaving M. Gustave with little choice: he must steal Boy With Apple. Enlisting Zero as his partner in crime, the two make off with the painting, hiding it, and promising one another to keep it for all eternity and cherish it … or fence it for a decent profit. You know, which ever comes first.
The film progresses as a fantastically linear and geometrically framed whimsical rollercoaster. The characters are as colourful as the old Budapest itself, living up to, and surpassing, every expectation of an Anderson film.
Fiennes is in top form as the incomparable M. Gustave H. He’s deft in his handling of the mannered character, allowing him to shine brightest of all, and never feeling overwrought. He’s a surprising gem to be added to the Anderson collection, and nestles neatly into the roster of regulars. Fingers are crossed that this is but the first of many appearances.
Newcomer Revolori as the young version of the mysterious M. Mustafa plays his deadpan, blank-slate character to perfection, while Saoirse Ronan supplies ample fiery sass and romance for our hero. Both young actors blend into the rigid universe Anderson has created with ease.
Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Madame D’s attorney, Deputy Kovacs, is literally stunning. Very much an aesthetic of his own, Goldblum is known for his distinctive tone and mannerisms. Often parodied, but seldom adequately mimicked, he’s very much a character in his own right. Yet here he manages to meld with Anderson’s aesthetic, blending with the style rather than sticking out like a sore thumb. The two seemingly divergent styles compliment each other, adding a newfound dry wit to Anderson’s already deadpan humour.
The cast of regulars is a joy to spot, as most of them factor into relatively small roles. Adrien Brody returns to the Anderson canon as Madame D’s nefarious gold digging son, Dmitri, with his muscle (and presumably lover) Jopling in tow, played to menacing perfection by Willem Dafoe. Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray all make their mandatory cameos in various pleasant, albeit tiny, roles, alongside the likes of Bob Balaban, Waris Ahluwaliah, and Wally Wolodarsky. Some surprise cameos include the incredibly talented Léa Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric.
In a last playful touch, Anderson has finally managed to include the Academy Ratio in one of his films. Shot in three separate aspect ratios – 2.35:1 for the present day and 1985 content, 1.85:1 for all footage from 1968 with Jude Law, and the Academy Ratio, 1.33:1, for everything in 1932 – he gives his latest masterwork the ultimate final touch. The use of the 1.33 ratio amplifies the already dollhouse-like quality to Anderson’s work, adding an unspoken level of perfection to the film’s stunning aesthetic.
The visually limited Academy ratio helps emphasize the similarly limited mindset of the time, even in spite of the film’s fictional geographic placement. The Second World War had yet to strike, and Europe was just beginning to feel secure again. Meanwhile, in the late ‘60s, we’re shown every inch of the dilapidated truth of the Grand Budapest, at a time when the sheen had worn off the world as a whole, let alone Western Europe. And finally, the present day, where our young fanatic reader worships at the altar of Author as if she were listening to the Puhdys, sitting by Paul and Paula Shore in Lichtenberg. There’s a sentiment of cult romanticism about the impact of Zero’s story, of a rebellion akin to that of The Legend of Paul and Paula. Every facet of this fantasized European identity feels real, and tangible.
Wes Anderson has truly managed to outdo himself with The Grand Budapest Hotel. It feels far more organic than Moonrise Kingdom before it, a film that felt so put upon by its own whimsy that it suffocated, and failed to thrive. The Grand Budapest sits neatly in its overly mannered case, a doll house you’re content to admire without touching, immaculate in its rendering. It’s as delicate and delectable as the pastries that fill nearly every frame, and it’s a true pleasure to watch.