Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the cinematic equivalent of a pastry: beautiful, exquisitely-crafted and so immensely enjoyable that it seems too good to be real. Part-homage to pre-World War II Europe, part-tribute to memory and the passage of time and part-ridiculous slapstick, “The Grand Budapest”‘s greatest achievement is not in its visual perfection but its literary sensibility. It’s what would happen if a classic novel shed its bindings and took up residence on the screen, albeit with Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) as its author.
Breathing exuberant life into the film is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the cheeky, poetry-reciting concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a splendid mountainside Resort in a country that vaguely resembles some pre-Iron Curtain, Eastern European enclave of wealth and respectability. At his side is Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), a lobby boy who is the straight man to Gustave’s flowery, rambling, elegant Old World charmer. Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a bakery employee with delicate charm and a birthmark to rival Mikhail Gorbachev’s, brings a sweetness to the cast as Zero’s love interest.
Their routine is upended when the doddering Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, hidden under layers of makeup), is murdered. Once it’s discovered that she bequeathed her most prized possession, a quirky Renaissance painting known as Boy with Apple, to Gustave instead of her son Dmitiri (Adrien Brody), all hell breaks loose. Cue the hilarity. And the police. And a prison break. What follows is a reflection on the nature of change and the elements of storytelling, all cleverly disguised as a caper.
Nothing in “The Grand Budapest” is permanent–neither people, art, nor a sense of place–and as the characters grapple with this reality so will the viewer. The plot, like a series of nesting dolls, is also not static. It unfolds backwards: the film’s first narrator is an elderly writer who recounts The Grand Budapest’s heyday as it was told to his younger self (Jude Law), by an aging Zero (F. Murray Abraham). Abraham’s tale, told to Law in a decrepit Grand Budapest, its glamour transformed into the staid architecture familiar to Eastern Bloc countries, is practically Proustian in its meditation on the past.
One has to commend Anderson for the breadth of his vision, for he’s given us a narrative that simultaneously dissects a world’s changing geopolitical nature as well as what we do about the ghosts of former selves and places. The world in which he sets The Grand Budapest, a shadowy reflection of a slice of the twentieth century destroyed by World War II and Communism, is nothing if not a meditation on the shifts in our own lives. After all, who hasn’t looked back on the past and seen a beauteous thing? Who doesn’t covet a time better than our own, even if that time never really existed in the first place?
Like Zero, we’re all guilty of mourning something that once was, and thanks to Anderson, we can enjoy a handsome trip down a particularly funny memory lane. Anderson asks us to be the wishful-thinking writers of our own lives, the hopeful holdouts for a better world: those in the increasingly uncertain twenty-first century who would hold up a hand, as Gustave H. does so eloquently, and say, I’m afraid that’s me, darling.