Let’s be honest here. No one who knows me or has followed my reviews is going to be surprised by the announcement that I loved Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But even I’m surprised by how completely blown away I was by it. I expected to love it — with certain reservations about the lack of pop songs on the soundtrack — but not like this. It is a film that might have been made just for me. I am an easy mark for end-of-an-era stories with their inherent sadness over the passing of an age. I am also a sucker for brazenly confessional works, and Grand Budapest is the most openly confessional of Anderson’s films. Could there be a more self-aware statement than, “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but, I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!” Doesn’t that sum up the essential mood that hangs over all Wes Anderson pictures?
There’s more. The film, at least its central section, is like something the great Ernst Lubitsch would have made in his glory days of the early 1930s, right down to retaining the old 1.37:1 framing of that era. (The more modern sections of the film are in either 1.85:1 or full 2.35:1 widescreen.) It is set in one of those mythical European kingdoms one finds in Lubitsch’s pictures, too, and the intricate sets are designed to add to every gag and nuance. But don’t take the comparison too far. In fact, the only direct reference to classic Hollywood I caught was an usherette dressed in the same costume — right down to cape and neon wand — as worn by Margaret Sullavan in a Budapest movie palace in William Wyler’s The Good Fairy (1935). No, this is Lubitsch — or the style he helped create — as seen through an Anderson filter. It’s more manic, yet simultaneously sadder. It’s also infused with a style that has a lot to do with Richard Lester’s 1960s movies. (Anderson is perhaps the only director today, apart from Martin Scorsese, who understands how to use a zoom lens.) You will also find elements of Hitchcock’s British pictures (especially those set on trains). The result is purely Wes Anderson in its distillation.
This is the first film Anderson has written without a co-writer, making it possibly his most personal work to date. It tells the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel — mostly through the story of its most dedicated concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), an impeccably dressed, overly perfumed man who might be said to be the spirit of the hotel. While he remains sexually ambiguous (“I go to bed with all my friends”) he has a taste for very elderly, very rich blonde women. He makes sure that everything is just right and that all the clientele — especially, those elderly, rich blondes — are satisfied. This story, set in 1932, is told in 1968 by Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s final owner, to a young writer (Jude Law) during the last days of the once-great hotel. In 1932, Mr. Moustafa was merely a not-too-legal refugee and lobby-boy-in-training, called Zero (Tony Revolori). Through circumstances, Zero becomes M. Gustave’s sidekick.
The impossibly convoluted story involves the death of one of M. Gustave’s rich blondes, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). The death turns out to be murder, and M. Gustave is on the spot, thanks to her villainous children (headed by Adrien Brody) and the fact that she left M. Gustave a priceless (well, $5 million worth of priceless) painting. Worse, the only one who can clear him has disappeared, setting things in motion for a very wild ride indeed. Along the way, Zero falls in love with a pastry chef, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), we see the rise of an unnamed fascist regime, witness the decay of the world of the film and get a virtual who’s who of the Anderson stock company in small roles. It’s the kind of breathless, colorful entertainment that leaves you wishing it had gone on longer than its 99 minutes.
Unlike most of Anderson’s other films, there is no key moment of sadness. There’s nothing like Owen Wilson’s death in The Life Aquatic (2004), or the sequence with the drowning boy in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Instead, the whole film is tinged with an almost unbearable sadness that colors even the most comic moments. A lot of it is due to the unlikely character of M. Gustave himself and Fiennes’ ridiculous — and ridiculously touching — performance of this fastidious, fussy, far-from-scrupulous man who spends his life looking for “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” He is brilliant, and he’s in a brilliant film that is funny, marvelously creative and always just a little bit sad. Easily the best film to come along this year — and it will probably still be at the end of the year. Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence.