“You see, there are still small glimmers of civilization amid this barbaric slaughterhouse that we know as humanity, and I like to think that we provide in some small way a measure of — oh, fuck it.” For me, that line encapsulates the complicated pleasures of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s not just the sudden, comic, uncharacteristically profane turn in Anderson’s exquisite writing. It’s the sentiment that some rarefied, nonexistent place might serve as a bulwark against the ravages of an uncaring world. Anderson uses this film to look at those ravages more than he’s ever done. I don’t know if that makes this his best film, but I suspect it might be his deepest.
The bulk of the story takes place in 1932 at a ritzy pink Alpine resort hotel in the fictional nation of Zubrowka. Here, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori) has found sanctuary working as a “lobby boy” under the strict tutelage of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s impeccably discreet, efficient, well-groomed concierge who tends to his wealthy guests’ needs, including their sexual ones if they’re older women. When one of these, an octogenarian dowager countess (Tilda Swinton under old-age makeup), is killed and leaves Gustave a priceless Dutch painting in her will, her hotheaded and scheming son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) conspires to frame him for her murder. Zero joins a frantic effort to bust Gustave out of prison and clear his name, along with Gustave’s fellow inmates, a secret network of hotel concierges across Europe, and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the downtrodden young pastry chef for whom Zero has fallen.
If you’ve seen anything by Wes Anderson, you’ll quickly recognize his cinematic vocabulary here: overhead shots, centered compositions, cameras placed at the front of moving vehicles. The 1932 part of the story is filmed in a squarish frame identical to what movies from that historical period used, while the three (count ’em!) framing devices bracketing the main story use frames more typical to their periods, 1968 and 1985.
A current of pathos lurks beneath the pretty surfaces of all of Anderson’s films, but here it’s particularly easy to see. Zero is an orphaned refugee from a war-torn Middle Eastern country, while the framing devices inform us that the hotel and Zubrowka will both be swept away by history, and more than one of our heroes will meet with sad ends. Even though the bloodshed mostly takes place offscreen, this film is still Anderson’s most direct reckoning with the evils and brutality of the world. Much like Merchant and Ivory did in their films like Howards End and The Remains of the Day, Anderson pines nostalgically for a time that has been obliterated by modernity.
Except that he’s much funnier than Merchant and Ivory. His light touch with comedy and action give The Grand Budapest Hotel the fleetness of a caper. Gustave’s escape from prison is dazzlingly executed, and the sequence when he and Zero steal the painting that’s rightfully his is capped with a great gag, as Zero replaces the dignified portrait with a hideous pornographic work. (No one else notices this until late in the film.) A frenzied chase sequence with Gustave and Zero zipping through a ski course on a dog sled is balanced by a slow chase in which Dmitri’s hit man (Willem Dafoe) stalks the countess’ lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) through a museum, a scene that’s somehow cute, funny, grisly, and chilling all at the same time.
The proceedings are anchored by Fiennes, giving the finest performance of his career. He expertly negotiates the torrent of verbiage that Anderson writes for him, including Gustave’s tendency to compose second-rate poetry even when he’s facing imminent death. Yet Fiennes also knows how to go in for bathos, like in the quote that opens this review, letting Gustave’s carefully tended facade drop when he gets frazzled by his predicament. He turns out to be a nimble physical comedian, too, in a scene when Gustave runs from the cops coming to arrest him.
Most of all, Fiennes effortlessly embodies the character’s contradictions. Gustave’s romanticism is tempered by a hard-headed practical streak — after solemnly vowing never to set foot in the Grand Budapest again, he runs in there without a moment’s hesitation when he sees Agatha in danger. Gustave isn’t blind to what’s going on outside his hotel, but he still meets the leader of a death squad with a courteous smile and a compliment because that’s how he believes in doing things. The Grand Budapest Hotel is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist who observed Hitler’s depredations and took refuge in his own culture and refinement. You can see how Gustave and Wes Anderson react similarly when they take in the world’s cruelties. At one point, some characters fall from a window ledge into a truck filled with boxes of pastry. Wes Anderson creates a world where pastry can save your life.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Rated R.