There’s a moment in The Grand Budapest Hotel that’s about as sinister as Kubrick’s The Shining, and writer/director Wes Anderson knows it. It involves an evil man stalking an innocent through lush hallways, and the man in question has his brow pointed toward downward so his eyes are that much more menacing. It’s a startling image since the ads for Anderson’s latest suggest a madcap farce. The plot certainly unfolds at a breakneck pace and there are several intentionally funny chase sequences, yet there is also an undercurrent of gloom and profound sadness. Without the bubbly performances or cheeky dialogue, some moments would be too much to bear.
In terms of narrative, this is Anderson at his most ambitious. The Grand Budapest Hotel has the structure of a Russian nesting doll: it takes place in four separate time periods, and while the script does not devote the same time to each one, it preserves the same essential core. The bulk of the story happens in 1932 in a fictional European country, where the famous hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) dotes on wealthy old women. His favorite is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who feels as if death is approaching soon. She is correct, to Gustave’s surprise, and the new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) earns Gustave’s trust with the subsequent funeral preparations.
A brief interlude: Zero is the common thread of the time four periods. In 1968, an aged Zero (F. Murray Abraham) tells the Gustave story to a writer (Jude Law), who then turns it into a book. In 1985, the aged writer (Tom Wilkinson) talks about Zero’s story in the context of the writing profession (the last timeline is a young woman reading his book (she never speaks)). Oh, and Anderson films each time period with a different aspect ratio. These details will be important later in this review.
Anyway, let’s get back to Madame D’s death. With carefully chosen language, her lawyer (Jeff Goldlbum) explains how Gustave inherits “Boy with Apple,” a priceless painting. This is the only thing in her estate worth a damn, so her sons Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling (Willem Dafoe) are furious. They give the quasi-fascist policeman (Henckels) Edward Norton enough cause to arrest Gustave, who spends the rest of the movie trying to escape from jail and clear his name. He also wants the painting (of course).
Anderson’s latest includes all the trademarks of his work – bespoke characters, pristine production design, and effete dialogue – and nearly everything toward self-parody. The different aspect ratios are not merely a novelty, but an opportunity for Anderson to signal the time period and frame a given shot in different, albeit parallel ways. It never falls apart because of Anderon’s deft editing, and because his actors wholly commit to their roles, no matter what the extreme. Gustave is not just a snob and a pervert; he’s also a gentleman capable of profound decency, even he expects others to follow his example to a fault. Dmitri is not just an entitled jackass; he’s a sadistic bully whose first instinct is to spew bile at anyone who wrongs him. Brody’s first line is mean and toxic, which shows that Anderson wants to push buttons. His characters are not on autopilot, and this entertainment is more serious than twee.
The Grand Budapest Hotel earns its R-rating in spades. The profanity is nonstop, by Anderson standards, and there are several moments of shocking violence. An indicative foot-chase ends with several severed body parts (the audience gasped). The violence and language – words that are both vulgar and tediously specific – help the film function like a strange prism of 20th century history. Anderson and his characters regret how the rise of fascism also means that civilization (insofar that Gustave defines it) must decline. There are two scenes where Zero and Gustave must produce their papers for the police, and the outcomes of the scenes represent a sea change in Europe. There is no longer an environment where anyone can expect dignity because obedience took its place.
I just reread that paragraph, and I should apologize for making the movie sound so ghastly. This is Anderson we’re talking about, so of course there are moments that are delightful for their own sake. Saoirse Ronan pops up as Agatha, Zero’s love interest, and there is a great running gag where she must compromise her sense of propriety. Goldblum steals every scene he’s in by simply taking it all too seriously. The prison escape sequence recalls calls classic World War 2 films (The Great Escape and Stalag 17 in particular), and unfolds with the infectious combination of precision and camaraderie. But for all its fancifulness, Anderson is always pulling us back to reality at its most ugly.
Without the Russian doll narrative device, The Grand Budapest would be lighter entertainment. Three narrators are there for context, and also so the story may capture the correct measure of sadness. The elderly Zero cannot tell the story without bursting into tears, and when it’s over, the young writer feels profound melancholy. While the writer has this feeling in a general way, Zero’s feelings are more acute. Wealthy eccentrics and lowlifes butt heads around a place like the titular hotel, and we turn our attention there since death and loss are just beyond its pristine grounds. The reader clutches to her book, just like the writer clutches to the story, just like Zero clutches to his memory. Each subsequent iteration is felt less than the last, which means they become increasingly fun. Where does that leave us?