The Grand Budapest Hotel
Four stars (out of four)
Exotic pastries play an absurdly significant role in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it all makes perfect sense.
The entire movie is like a giant, elaborately decorated cake, created by this most exacting of film craftsmen.
And how tasty it is!
Eight features into a career of artisanal whimsy, the Texas writer/director has “baked” his masterwork, an early candidate for 2014’s best film. Every carefully arranged image is a visual treat and a comic delight, set to Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score.
Anderson’s pink-frosted retreat sits amongst the central European mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka, a place you won’t find via Google Earth.
Through these vast doors pass many familiar faces — people like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban, variously seen in Bottle Rocket through Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s previous films.
But the most engaging and amusing of them is new to Anderson’s antics: Ralph Fiennes.
He’s Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the Grand Budapest, a man of fastidious manner and reckless charm.
Gustave pleasures his wealthy female clientele from lobby to bedroom, their age and decrepitude being no obstacle to swinging.
His treats include servings of divine confections made by Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a sweetly innocent baker who catches the eye of Gustave’s loyal protégé, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, a casting find).
Gustave’s favourite guest is octogenarian Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), who positively adores him — and who wouldn’t?
But she fears unspecified treachery as she prepares to return home to her grasping son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and other ungrateful offspring.
Her suspicions will soon be realized and Gustave will be drawn against his will into nasty business, which includes a merry chase for this picture’s MacGuffin: a priceless Renaissance painting called Boy With Apple.
The year is 1932, notably in between world wars at the dawn of something very much like German fascism.
Darkness is descending upon all of Europe, evident in the growing number of rude men in uniforms, bearing ominous Nazi-like symbols (they’re called “Zig-Zags”), who have no patience for civility.
The tale is actually told over four time periods, the others being 1968, 1985 and the present day.
Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman use different camera aspect ratios — variously turning the screen square, rectangle and stretch rectangle — to subliminally and quaintly indicate the passage of time and how our perspectives change along with it.
Current time and 1985 are the briefest stretches, featuring Tom Wilkinson as an author explaining the hotel’s history, which he has turned into a book.
He beckons us to 1968, whereupon the younger version of himself, played by Jude Law as a writer seeking a rest cure from “scribe’s fever,” finds the nearly empty Grand Budapest greatly diminished from its past glories.
An elderly gentleman named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) offers over dinner to tell the young writer about the fabled establishment, a place he sadly observes is now “too decadent for modern tastes.”
Thus begins the film’s main narrative of the early ’30s, the era of Gustave, who discovers to his dismay but not his defeat that terrible things are occurring in his well-ordered universe.
Barbarians are indeed at the gates, but Gustave has been too busy to notice.
Now he must clear his good name, as Anderson wheels us through a madcap tribute to cinema past that includes genre hat-tips to screwball comedy, prison drama, caper movie, war romance, road film and more.
As zany as it all sounds — and just wait until you meet the Society of the Crossed Keys, a secret concierge fraternity — there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to The Grand Budapest Hotel that indicates how far Anderson has progressed from the studied irony of his early films.
He co-wrote the script with Hugo Guinness, a British artist.
The impeccable production design has always been there in Anderson’s films, but you can sense a further maturing of the storytelling that began with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s 2012 childhood reverie.
When Gustave laments the slide of civility, he speaks sincerely and across the decades.
There’s a lot going on, but everything comes marvelously to fruition with The Grand Budapest Hotel, the grandest of treats from Wes Anderson. Where’s my fork?
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.