Present day. A young woman wearing a beige beret and white leggings approaches the memorial of a deceased English author, and after placing a trinket of remembrance on the stone, she turns to one of the man’s books, which she has brought along with her – The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cut to the 1980s. The aged Author (Tom Wilkinson) sits at a desk, facing the audience, and, aside from being briefly interrupted by an unidentified child, he proceeds to monologue what is presumably the introduction to his book.
Cut again, to the year 1968. Here, at the one-time glorious Grand Budapest Hotel, a younger version of the Author (Jude Law) is one of the few hotel regulars that make up its rather puny clientele. One evening he encounters an older gentleman, named Mr. Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abraham), and it is through this gentleman that our young writer – and in turn, his older self, the girl in leggings, and those of us in the audience – learn of the hotel’s greatest years, when there was, to paraphrase Mr. Moustafa, still some trace of gentility in the world.
Thus begins the children’s book-like adventure of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – a charming, peculiar, and in the end rather touching film about days gone by and silly escapades that carry us from the lobby of the Grand Budapest into a fabulous mansion, a prison, the mountains, a museum, and a monastery, among other places. Running through it all is Ralph Fiennes in a winning and delightful role as M. Gustav H., the Grand Budapest’s exacting concierge – a man beloved by many of his elderly female guests, whom he caters to both formally and intimately.
It is one of these intimate relationships that pulls him into a scandal, as a recently deceased former client’s family goes into an uproar when it is learned that Madame has bequeathed a valuable item to Gustave, and soon enough the man finds himself on the run with the Hotel’s lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, filling in for Abraham as a younger Mr. Moustafa), wanted for murder, and chased by both the family’s frightening hit-man (Willem Dafoe) and the chief of police (Edward Norton).
Yet the story is not what matters here; in fact, it is rather incidental, as Mr. Anderson’s script never manages to summon the emotional pull that usually compels an audience to sit tight and bear through the narrative of a motion picture. This is not, however, intended to denote the integrity of this film’s artistry, which really is, ultimately, the one real reason to stick around.
The deliberateness of this film’s visual construction is superb, and a total joy to behold; each shot is composed with such exquisite detail, one almost feels that Grand Budapest would work better as a coffee table book than as a movie, so that one might savor the intricacies of each image more fully before the cursed editor cuts them away. The level of care that goes into such a film is a reward unto itself, and elevates the film’s credibility both as an entertainment and as a work of art.
This all gains potency, however, when one stops to consider how cleverly the production’s aesthetics integrate the story’s (and Gustav H.’s) emotional core. The movie is Gustave H., as Moustafa describes him: shallow, insecure, charming, and rich – essentially, everything that the world around him is not, although both he and Mr. Anderson do their part to keep us from forgetting the terrible danger that is slinking through the snow, whether in the form of Mr. Dafoe or the swastika-like insignia of this fictional nation’s expanding military. Anderson has always exceled in quirky, off-beat cinema, but this work feels like a blissful if somewhat tragic personal expression of nostalgia for a time he hasn’t even lived through.
In this way, The Grand Budapest Hotel reminds me of last year’s The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann, for how it features a tragic, romantic figure, who stands for the passing of a cultivated and enriching older world for the sake of a darker, ruthless one. At the end of the film, we find ourselves back in 1968, as the older version of Zero finishes his story; from there, we cut back to Tom Wilkinson’s aged Author, as he pens the final words of his book; and then we are in the courtyard again, with the girl in white leggings, as she closes the book she has just finished reading – so far away from this world she has just experienced, even though, for the last ninety minutes, it has felt so close.
One feels the distance of time at the close of this movie, and I think it is safe to say that many of us may share Mr. Anderson’s sentiment in wishing that this beautiful world – when the Grand Budapest Hotel was in its prime – were a little more within our reach.