The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film with which Wes Anderson finally answers his critics, and the message could not be clearer or more immaculately embossed in Futura on an insert shot of the most delicate stationary: “Go fuck yourselves.” Anderson has been contemporary American cinema’s most hostile aesthete for well over a decade, and ever since 2003’s The Life Aquatic made it obvious that the filmmaker has exactly zero interest in apologizing for his affectations, each of his subsequent projects has been met with the kind of ecclesiastical rapture and blind derision typically reserved for racist politicians and superhero movie casting.
Rather than trying to show the naysayers that he’s capable of more than they think, Anderson has instead devoted himself to proving the value of what they think he is – rather than broadening his film universe, Anderson has narrowed, deepened and dimensionalized it, the difference between The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom being similar to that between a mural and a diorama. The framing device of The Grand Budapest Hotel would be enough in and of itself to continue Anderson’s inward trajectory, the story unfolding via a simple nesting doll structure that allows the filmmaker to practically incept himself. But The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t the most Wes Anderson film because of how densely it delivers all of the familiar tropes and fetishes (Miniatures! Orphans! Characters dangling from high places!), no, his eighth feature is a logical leap further down the rabbit hole of his own imagination because it’s the first Wes Anderson movie that’s about Wes Anderson movies.
A four-tiered confection that moves with the wild energy of Fantastic Mr. Fox but lingers with a more brutal, weaponized version of the wistfulness that haunted Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a caper comedy about how the rise of fascism in the 1930s robbed an entire continent of its civility. More literally, it’s about Ralph Fiennes providing an 84-year-old Tilda Swinton with such regular and divine sexual satisfaction that several people meet their gruesome deaths as a direct result of her octogenarian pleasure. It’s Wes Anderson’s third consecutive home run, but more importantly it’s the only one of his films to make all of them better.
Here’s how it works: Like Inception, there are four different levels, the ones here representing four pointedly different epochs. Unlike Inception, The Grand Budapest Hotel never depicts parallel action across the various threads – one is the bunk bed, the other is the ladder. We start at the top, descend to the bottom, and climb back up to leave. Lest anyone be confused, Anderson and his longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman cleverly assign separate aspect ratios to each of the time periods, the various picture sizes reflecting the look of movies endemic to their era.
Timeline 1: Present Day. A young girl with a good book in her hands visits the memorial of a late writer (the inscription on the bust simply reads: “Author”).
Timeline 2: The 1980s. The nameless Author – now a fleshy Tom Wilkinson – reads an excerpt from his treasured book, The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Timeline 3: The 1960s. A fictionalized version of the Author (Jude Law, emerging from an amusing period of physically degrading roles) visits the eponymous institution, which rots atop a snowy peak in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, and is most commonly reached by funicular (natch). The cavernous lodging is obviously a pale ghost of its former self, the hollowed out home for a skeleton crew of employees who make Jack Torrance look busy. It’s there that the Author encounters Mr. Moustafa (the great F. Murray Abraham), the warm but palpably sad man who owns the worthless estate. Moustafa invites the Author to join him for dinner in a barren ballroom that has all of the empty spectacle of modern day Pyongyang, and there the old man regales his guest with the story of how he first came to The Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 1930s, when he was a bright but penniless kid named Zero (Tony Revolori).
Timeline 4: The 1930s. The vast majority of the film transpires in the hotel’s majestic pre-war period (shot in boxy 1.37:1 to capture the lobby’s awesome vertical span), where a young immigrant without a family or a home is reluctantly hired as the new lobby boy by legendary concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, delivering his best work since Schindler’s List, not to mention the single most dynamic lead performance a Wes Anderson movie has ever known or required).
Fractured further into five separate chapters, each of which seems possessed by a different genre, The Grand Budapest Hotel welcomes you in fits and starts. It lacks the cohesive forward momentum of Anderson’s last two films, the story little more than a flimsy means of making you fall in love with its setting. The Republic of Zubrowka is like a snow globe with the hotel loosely glued to the bottom, production designer Adam Stockhausen empowering Gustave to transform a Görlitz department store with the same kind of shifting and limitless imagination that Caden Cotard used to commandeer the Brooklyn Armory.
Gustave isn’t only the heart of this funneled narrative, he’s also its soul. Both the character and the film around him are hilarious and uncommonly vulgar, but neither is ever coarse – this is by far Anderson’s most violent and unforgiving movie, his coldest in every which way, but it treasures the sweetness that survives. Likewise, Gustave may accept blow jobs from the rich old ladies who frequent the hotel, but he does so gallantly and with pride (despite being as outwardly queer as would be allowed of a character in an early ‘30s farce). When one of those rich old ladies (Swinton) is murdered and Gustave learns that he’s the sole benefactor of a massive fortune, the dedicated concierge is far more shocked than he is satisfied, the restless plot kicking into gear as the thuggish son of the deceased (Adrien Brody) and his henchman (Willem Dafoe) seek to forcibly reclaim their inheritance.
Most essential to Gustave’s character is that he, like the declining Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s or The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014, is giddily anachronistic, nobly defending a decorum that has been replaced by whatever common ugliness has become convenient at the time. Gustave runs the place as though he were both the king and caretaker of a self-contained fiefdom in which every detail is ruthlessly selected so as to protect the hotel from the steady march of time. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Gustave’s Moonrise Kingdom, but he gets to live there. As George Prochnik wrote of Stefan Zweig, the gallivanting renaissance fop upon whom Gustave is based: “Why give up a fantasy world if reality is a nightmare?”
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Wes Anderson movie, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is also a Wes Anderson movie. While each and every one of his movies has mirthfully celebrated the bond instilled by a shared vocation (just think of Team Zissou and its interns), The Grand Budapest Hotel sanctifies that solidarity with The Society of the Crossed Keys, a brotherhood of concierges that serves to explicitly underline the significance of what some people may have previously dismissed as an easy affectation.
Sure, its concierge is so desperately clinging to the illusion of permanence that Zero has to descend a mountain in order to fetch a newspaper, but he only shields himself from the growing fascist threat because he understands the full extent of what’s at risk. Gustave recognizes that an unyielding commitment to such individuality is itself a profound rebuke to oppression, and if you mourn how the hotel is callously gutted by the outside world – and you will – it becomes impossible to deny the value of Wes Anderson’s work, or his decision to double down on what makes it unique. Sight unseen, it might sound like cinema as defensive posturing, but The Grand Budapest Hotel locates the irreducibly human element at the heart of Anderson’s style, in the process becoming his most stylish film to date.
But if this is the most Wes Anderson film he’s made yet, a large part of what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel so much fun is that – at the same time – none of his previous films have been so transparently indebted to other filmmakers. Cute references abound (the full name of Swinton’s character is Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, a.k.a “Madame D,” a loud nod to Max Ophüls), while brilliant matte paintings recall The Archers and a third act chase sequence feels like a Bond movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch. But Anderson pushes himself too hard to use his heroes as a crutch. What lazy viewers might see as more of the same, others will recognize as Anderson testing the limits of his control, the precision of his filmmaking increasing in tandem with the frenzied pace of his plot. In fact, things move and resolve so fast that the movie’s reservoir of pain almost feels iced over, like you’ve lost something but can’t quite remember what. Yet the film’s final cut is so abrupt that it’s tempting to think it instructive. After all, like the book that a girl brings to its Author’s grave, the movie will always be waiting for you to return, its story surviving what its setting could not.
Of course, at the end of the day it’s really pretty simple: either you want to see a movie in which a bearded Jeff Goldblum plays a character named Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, or you don’t. But trust me, you do. You really do.