By this point, you know whether or not you love the films of Wes Anderson. He’s a true auteur with an unmistakable style, and unless he undergoes a radical transformation, his fans and his detractors will remain firmly entrenched. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, won’t change anyone’s mind about the director nor should it. The movie is almost the platonic ideal of Wes Anderson picture, and yet it’s free from over-indulgence and self-congratulations. The film is vibrant, witty, pristine, and a wonder to behold. While it falls a bit short of the emotional impact of a couple of his other movies, Anderson has still crafted a captivating mixture of magic and melancholy.
The story begins with an author (Tom Wilkinson) in the 1980s relating a tale of his days as a young writer (Jude Law) in the 1960s, who met Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the proprietor of the dreary and near-deserted Grand Budapest Hotel, which is set in the fictional European town of Zubrowska. Mr. Moustafa tells the young writer about the glory years of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 20th century, going by his first name Zero (Tony Revolori), and how he worked as a lobby boy under the tutelage of beloved concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). When wealthy dowager Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) bequeaths a valuable painting to Gustave for all the kindness he showed her, it sets off a chain events involving prison, murder, mayhem, subterfuge, love, and most importantly, kindness.
Even Anderson’s most “realistic” films—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited—don’t exist in our reality. They’re a diorama in a shop window; they’re a tableau brimming with life. This presentation creates a distance for some, and for others, it’s a entrancing. I fall into the latter category, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, is his unique world meshed with the darkest times of the real 20th century Europe. But instead of coming away with a schizophrenic mess, Anderson has found a way to unite the two in a swirl where the prim and proper exists in tandem with the brash and vulgar.
Combining these elements has always been Anderson’s way. It’s Margot’s severed finger replaced with wood in The Royal Tenenbaums; it’s turning Serpico into a high school play in Rushmore; it’s Mr. Fox eating his home cooked waffles like an animal in Fantastic Mr. Fox. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, this duality is perfectly captured in the character of M. Gustave with Fiennes giving one of the finest performances of his career. Gustave can switch from eloquently enumerating the duties of a hotel employee to dropping foul language without ever missing a beat. He treats the world like a gentleman even though his words and action sometimes reveal a cad.
This personality expands throughout the world even though it’s not Gustave’s recollections but the recollections of a writer who heard the tale from Gustave’s protégé. Gustave’s voice has been passed down to Zero, and Zero’s voice has been transformed by a world where the color was drained away by tragedy and the slow ebb of time. Even fascism was once fanciful—represented by the “ZZ” officer Henckles (Edward Norton)—but eventually we’re left with the Grand Budapest Hotel becoming a tomb. For all the celebrations of Anderson’s colorful palette, he never forgets the loss and sadness that pervades his world and ours.
But the design remains marvelous. Every technical element is at its finest. Anderson changes aspect ratios, and most of the movie is spent in 1.33:1, a nod not only to the time period where the majority of the action takes place, but also to the influences of director Ernst Lubitsch. And yet the small frame is never constrictive. Anderson’s visuals aren’t condensed; they burst forth as if he were shooting in widescreen the entire time. In fact, the material shot in the smaller aspect ratio is more vivid than the widescreen material. We’re transported to three worlds, and the one furthest away is the one we want the most even though it’s doomed to disappear.
But it’s marvelous while it lasts no matter where it takes us. The majesty of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday is on par with the prison and Madame D.’s mansion. My limited vocabulary cannot do justice to the extraordinary work of cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, composer Alexandre Desplat, editor Barney Pilling, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and the rest of the crew that made this dream come to life. Anderson’s work has hardly ever wanted for technical proficiency, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel, his vision is fully realized to its utmost. Even the brutality is immaculate.
All of this exacting beauty creates the risk of making the movie too clean and sterile. It could have been a precious dollhouse we’re allowed to see but not touch. Thankfully, and as always, Anderson never forgets to fill his movie with humor and tenderness. The supporting performances across the board are terrific, the comic timing is impeccable, and the little details not only breathe more life into the picture, but also create some of the funniest moments. However, the emotional core—the relationship between Gustave and Zero—feels just a bit too calculated. Everything is in its right place, and that includes the emotions. It’s not that the movie feels restrictive or the relationships ring hollow. It simply didn’t hit me as hard as the relationships in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom. If others feel a stronger emotional connection to The Grand Budapest Hotel, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I won’t call The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson’s masterpiece or his magnum opus because doing so would preclude the possibility of the director going even further. The movie isn’t a summary or a culmination; it’s an artist pushing himself even harder. In 2007, I thought Anderson had stalled out with The Darjeeling Limited, a very good movie, but one where it looked like he had nothing left to offer. Seven years later, he continues to surprise us without ever losing his signature. He’s matured to where he doesn’t need to be overbearing or fill a niche. Wes Anderson’s direction is unforgettable, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception. It’s the rule.