Primarily set in the wintry, fictional, Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, the movie initially depicts its title location as a miniature model, nestled among snowy peaks. It’s like the world’s most ornately decorated piece of candy, dusted with sugar. There are other wonderfully detailed miniatures in the film – an observation tower, cable cars – all of which create an air of encased magic that carries over into the live-action scenes. At one point in a prison block, blustery flakes begin falling from the sky and we hardly bat an eye.
This snow globe comparison – as well as the references to puppets and doll houses – is not meant to diminish the craft of Anderson and his immensely talented team of set designers, animators and model makers. Indeed, Anderson’s fondness for quaint art distinguishes him among contemporary, first-tier filmmakers. Some have bemoaned the increasing fussiness of his pictures. I can only celebrate a career that has blossomed in such a way to incorporate not only the usual building blocks of cinema (motion, light, sound), but rarer, more handcrafted elements as well.
Not that this increased attention to form has come at the expense of story. In fact, no previous Anderson film has had as much story as The Grand Budapest Hotel. The movie opens in the present day, on a woman visiting a memorial statue for someone identified only as “Author.” It then jumps to 1985, where that author (Tom Wilkinson) speaks to the camera, telling us that most of his stories are told to him by others. Eventually we get to one of those tales and the narrative proper: the 1932 adventures of legendary Grand Budapest concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who presides over every aspect of the hotel with panache, eloquence and liberal doses of perfume.
Anderson’s fondness for quaint art distinguishes him among contemporary, first-tier filmmakers.
Like a layer cake (which is another way to describe the pink-hued hotel itself), this story structure is ostentatious on the outside, with a sweet, soft center. The core relationship in the film is between Gustave and a new “lobby boy,” Zero (Tony Revolori). A refugee from the east, Zero becomes Gustave’s protégé, and eventual accomplice. When one of the hotel’s loyal, aged guests (Tilda Swinton) is found murdered, Gustave is framed for the crime, forcing he and Zero to flee. If Gustave had been instructing Zero in the ways of refined society, Zero now must help him adjust to life in exile.
Revolori and Fiennes make an endearing pair, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is largely a showcase for the latter’s breathlessly comedic performance. Fiennes whisks through the film like a maître d’ who’s ushering himself to the best table in the house. Even as he serves the hotel’s guests – with brisk commands to underlings and eyelash-fluttering smiles to his patrons – he’s always making sure his own comfort is cared for. There’s a selfish desperation to Gustave, one that rears its head whenever one of his flowery speeches is punctuated with an instinctively vulgar aside. (After eloquently espousing on the beauty of a famed painting, he looks around and mutters, “The rest of this shit is worthless junk.”)
There are countless, amusing supporting performances as well, from Jeff Goldblum’s funereal will executor to Jason Schwartzman’s lazy concierge to Willem Dafoe’s bulldog strongman to Adrien Brody’s pompadoured conspirator. It says something that the movie only has room for a cameo from Anderson regular Bill Murray (in a hilarious concierge montage). Of course, he still registers.
Visual gags are plentiful, as well, many of them tied to Anderson and cinematographer Bob Yeoman’s choice to shoot the majority of the film in the boxy, 1.375:1 Academy ratio. Jokes concerning a prison door and a ladder rely precisely on the vast amount of “space” that lies outside the frame. The movie also manages at least three good jokes involving a murdered cat, as well as a climactic, chaotic shoot-out among soldiers at the hotel – “Who’s shooting who?!” demands a befuddled officer played by Edward Norton – that recalls the silly lunacy of the “war” at the end of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
Just as Duck Soup was a farce built upon the insanity of warfare, The Grand Budapest Hotel has trauma as its foundation. Vaguely German forces begin casting a shadow across Zubrowka, as well as suspicious glances at Zero, what with his questionable immigration papers and darker skin. An ominous odor is in the air, one which Gustave can’t easily dispel with squirts of expensive perfume. Early on, after Norton’s officer spares Zero from arrest, Gustave sighs and says, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse we once called humanity.” A comedy about the tragedy of nostalgia – nostalgia for aspect ratios no longer used and for a Europe no longer found – The Grand Budapest Hotel indulges in such glimmers, seals them in a precious snow globe and hopes they’ll forever be preserved.