One of the more frequent accusations leveled at Wes Anderson — that he’s a filmmaker who favors style over substance — will ring even hollower than usual after “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a captivating 1930s-set caper whose innumerable surface pleasures might just seduce you into overlooking its sly intelligence and depth of feeling. As intricately layered as a Dobos torte and nearly as rich, this twisty tale of murder, theft, conspiracy and unlikely friendship finds its maker in an unusually ambitious and expansive mood — still arranging his characters in detail-perfect dioramas, to be sure, but with a bracing awareness of the fascism, war and decay about to encroach upon their lovingly hand-crafted world. The result is no musty nostalgia trip but rather a vibrant and imaginative evocation of a bygone era, with a brilliant lead performance from Ralph Fiennes that lends Anderson’s latest exercise in artifice a genuine soul.
From a creative standpoint, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” sees Anderson continuing in the strong mid-career groove that began with his 2009 stop-motion toon, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and continued with 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a poignant return to live-action form that surpassed $68 million in worldwide B.O. to become his biggest hit in years. It remains to be seen whether the writer-director’s eighth feature can cross that commercial threshold, though its robust narrative, starry international cast and exotic period setting promise good specialty returns and a strong embrace from Anderson’s fanbase. After making its world premiere as the Berlin Film Festival’s opening-night attraction, the Fox Searchlight release opens Stateside on March 7.
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Although set in another droll storybook universe of Anderson’s own obsessive making — in this case, the fictitious Eastern European republic of Zubrowka — “The Grand Budapest Hotel” somehow proves the opposite of distancing. The director’s well-worn formal and tonal strategies — the exquisite visual ornamentation, the novelistic chapter headings, the pervasive sense of yearning for the past — have rarely felt as fittingly applied as they do here, bringing a lost, antiquated world to vivid cinematic life. And while Anderson’s script (based on a story conceived with Hugh Guinness) deploys an elaborate tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale framework, the playfully convoluted saga unfolds with remarkable lucidity.
It’s 1985 when a distinguished, middle-aged writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls how, in 1968, he came to stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel — or rather, what was left of it following the ravages of postwar communism. In this vast, moldering ruin, long abandoned but fondly remembered by a few, the author (Jude Law) finds himself dining with the hotel’s friendly but mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, excellent), who relates the curious story of how he came to possess it. And so the film retreats even further into the past, back to when the Grand Budapest was a thriving Alpine spa resort, its gaudy pink facade suggesting a mittel-European spin on Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Amid the chandeliers and staircases of this plush, red-carpeted ’30s paradise (looking grand indeed, courtesy of Adam Stockhausen’s production design), Zero (Tony Revolori), a shy, unassuming young immigrant who fled his Middle Eastern homeland, works as a junior lobby boy under the strict but dynamic tutelage of the hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes).
Sporting a mustache, dressed in a purple tuxedo and reeking of cologne, Gustave is at once a demanding taskmaster and a reckless bon vivant, upholding a lofty tradition of first-class service while happily seducing the ancient dowagers who constitute most of the Grand Budapest’s clientele. (Describing his appreciation of life’s finer, wrinklier pleasures, he notes that he likes them “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial and blonde.”) When one of his regular lovers, the 84-year-old Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, aka Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried under a mountain of old-age pancake), dies mysteriously at her nearby estate, Gustave rushes to her bedside with Zero in tow. They promptly stumble upon a den of vipers and thieves, all of them incensed to learn that the deceased has left Gustave a priceless painting.
Showing a fluid, quicksilver command of genre, Anderson spins this preposterous scenario in any number of directions: We get a country-house whodunit, complete with suspicious butler (Mathieu Amalric) and a steadily rising body count that will soon include Madame D.’s guileless executor (Jeff Goldblum); a brass-knuckles mob thriller fronted by the dead woman’s devious son (Adrien Brody) and his leather-clad henchman (Willem Dafoe, scary); and a prison-break caper in which Gustave must find a way to clear his name after being framed for murder. In this he is aided by the ever-loyal Zero and his equally devoted fiancee, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), one of a few apt references here to the Golden Age of detective fiction. (The characters’ occasional train journeys, recalling the transcontinental intrigue of “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Lady Vanishes,” are another.)
There are other influences, some more obvious than others: Despite its titular allusion to 1932’s Oscar-winning “Grand Hotel,” the comedy reveals a deeper affinity for Ernst Lubitsch (including, but not limited to, his Nazi-skewering “To Be or Not to Be” and his Budapest-set “Shop Around the Corner”). But Anderson’s chief inspiration was the work of the Viennese novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig, a contemporary of Arthur Schnitzler and Freud who enjoyed great international renown in the 1920s and ’30s (his books include “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” memorably filmed by Max Ophuls in 1948), but who has since fallen into obscurity in the U.S. In conjuring not just Zweig’s fiction but also his storied life of travel and luxury, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like nothing less than an act of cultural excavation, a proudly analog tribute to the joys of old movies, forgotten literature, vintage decor and outmoded technology.
That extends to d.p. Robert Yeoman’s lustrous 35mm lensing in three different aspect ratios, one for each of the story’s timeframes. In a touch that will delight cinephiles in particular, the extended ’30s flashback was shot entirely in the almost-Academy 1.33:1 format, an era-appropriate decision that has a marvelously capacious effect on Anderson’s typically fussy compositions and camera moves. With their striking depth of focus and taller frame, the boxy images feel looser, less hermetic and more spontaneous than usual, which suits the narrative’s heightened level of incident.
Indeed, if “Saturday Night Live’s” recent parody trailer for “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” offered a hilarious suggestion of what a Wes Anderson slasher thriller might look like, then “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is as close as the director is likely to come to making an out-and-out action movie — albeit one where secret assignations occur between two cable cars passing in midair, and a neatly diagrammed chase sequence finds Gustave and Zero sledding downhill in cold pursuit of a villain on skis. While these setpieces may elicit as many groans as gasps, there are nonetheless a few real frissons of suspense, giving full expression to the latent violence that has occasionally punctured the filmmaker’s pristine surfaces; it’s not every Anderson twee-fest that features a strangulation, a beheading and a few severed digits. The startling impact of these moments underscores the essential seriousness of the director’s approach, and those who mistake the picture for an over-decorated confection might be surprised by its unusually sharp, acrid flavor.
It’s no coincidence that Zweig was an Austrian Jew who watched his country fall to Hitler from afar: From an early scene in which Gustave and Zero are harassed by the Zubrowkan equivalent of the SS (commanded by Edward Norton), the film never loses sight of the sobering reality that the life of Old World leisure it depicts will soon pass away as history marches inexorably forward. Nor does it fail to empathize with those innocent outsiders who, like Zero Moustafa, were singled out for persecution (that the character’s name brings to mind one of Hollywood’s most famously blacklisted actors is hardly accidental). How seriously we’re supposed to take any of this will of course vary among the film’s admirers and detractors, but on balance, Anderson has stretched himself admirably here, pushing his talents in a direction that, while open to the usual charges of coyness and self-indulgence, can hardly be dismissed as complacent.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Fiennes’ performance, easily the most vital and energetic piece of Anderson-directed acting since Gene Hackman lit up “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Madly articulate and full of spirit, a disciplinarian and a dandy for whom hedonism and principle go hand-in-hand, the rascally concierge is a singular creation, and Fiennes’ turn is a marvel of high-flown diction, physical gusto and quiet gravitas. On paper, the actor couldn’t seem more oddly paired than with Revolori, an Anaheim, Calif.-born newcomer of Guatemalan descent, but the two achieve a charming rapport, Gustave’s unfailingly eloquent outbursts playing beautifully off Zero’s sweet, soft-spoken demeanor.
Fittingly enough for a film set in a nonexistent country, the actors, some of them sporting all manner of eccentric facial hair, have been directed to speak English in their native accents, yielding a sort of deliberate Europudding effect. (The British-German co-production was filmed entirely inside an empty, cavernous department store in Goerlitz, a German town located near the country’s borders with Poland and the Czech Republic). The mammoth ensemble includes such familiar Anderson repertory players as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Waris Ahluwalia and Wally Wolodarsky, most but not all of them squeezed into a single, cleverly timed sequence involving the hotel concierges of the world.
Among the director’s other regular collaborators, costume designer Milena Canonero and hair-makeup-prosthetics designer Frances Hannon make especially eye-popping contributions. In the first Anderson movie to feature no pop songs, Alexandre Desplat has concocted an unusually inventive score that combines a wide range of Central and Eastern European instruments (balalaikas, cimbaloms, Alpine horns), reaching a delirious crescendo toward the end of the closing credits.