Wes Anderson takes his trademark precociousness to the Alps with 2014's delightfully farcical The Grand Budapest Hotel. Among the many signature elements that have come to define Anderson's unmistakable style is his affection (read: fetish) for the look and feel of the moneyed, Euro-chic past; he fills his movies with sleeping-car train rides, claw-foot bathtubs, three-story New York brownstones, and well-tailored suits with pants hemmed several inches from the ground. In his previous feature Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson finally stopped placing his stories in the present day while having his characters inhabit vintage set pieces, and instead simply made a period film. With Grand Budapest, he goes one step further and changes not just the time, but also the place. Here, the events happen in the past (the 1930s, for the most part) as well as across the Atlantic, on the continent where his aesthetic elements originated: Europe.
One could argue that the way Anderson's heretofore American characters have found themselves surrounded by the European-inspired modalities that were co-opted by the New World upper class has been meaningful in and of itself; that seeing Anglocentric train cars journey through India speaks specifically to the aesthetics of mid-century imperialism, or that the French berets and Peter Pan collars of a boy and girl in 1960s New England illustrates a naïve sense of cool adopted by bookish kids who've only just heard about Godard and Truffaut. Nonetheless, Anderson doesn't lose one iota of charm by making his baroque art direction native to the story. But maybe it helps that the story isn't overly precious in the first place.
The narrative is presented through the recollections of an aging man (F. Murray Abraham) who presides over a once-grand hotel situated in the former Austro-Hungarian mountains. A monument to Europe's prewar Belle Epoque, the institution has clearly suffered following the decline of the aristocracy that once called it a second home. But when the man describes the hotel as he first saw it so many decades ago, we're given an unapologetically romantic vision of a handcrafted age before the leveling of the class system. While this idea might sound like a whitewashing of history, you only need to watch Gosford Park for a reminder that service was a very respectable industry in the early 20th century -- one that many agents took great pride in. Case in point, the narrator's mentor: the Grand Budapest Hotel's legendary concierge, Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustav is respected by those in the service industry and beloved by the hotel's very rich, very old patrons -- all due to his deeply felt commitment to his duties. The responsibility of a hotel's crew is to provide comfort, and that is what Gustav does, whether it means delivering sermons to his staff during mealtimes on the true meaning of quality service or sleeping with nearly all of his elderly female clients.
Indeed, even stranger than the general notion of a virile man bedding a 90-year-old lady is the fact that Gustav does this despite otherwise appearing, quite perplexingly, to be gay. Nonetheless, whether it's a fascinating quirk of his flawlessly groomed, heavily perfumed personality or just another expression of his obsession with his work, Gustav clearly takes great pride and joy in these relations. They prove to be a complicating factor, however, when one such matron (Tilda Swinton, hidden under some impressive old-age makeup) dies mysteriously, and her will reveals that one of her most valuable possessions -- a Renaissance painting of a boy with an apple -- should be bequeathed not to her seedy, underhanded son (Adrien Brody), but to her beloved Gustav.
This turns the great concierge into a prime suspect in the grand dame's murder. Our narrator, then a young, inexperienced lobby boy (played in this era by Tony Revolori) who was orphaned by the war in his home country, owes his mentor a debt of gratitude and more for taking him into his tutelage and offering him a sense of family; so, he aids his sensei in fleeing the law and hopefully clearing his name, all while their little corner of Imperial Eastern Europe nears closer and closer to war, revolution, and a very different future.
What's probably more important than any one plot point in Grand Budapest is the simple, rapturous fact that, first and foremost, it's a comedy. The movie certainly has heart, but there's no denying that it's decidedly less sentimental than most of Anderson's other works. It doesn't feel like he made a conscious choice to steer away from mushiness, exactly, but that he was rightly focused on the movie's smart, often frantic humor, and this naturally forced the sweetness to take a backseat. And it works -- the film is hilarious, thanks in no small part to a fantastic contribution by Fiennes, who appears to have been saving up his comedic talent by playing serious for all these years, only to spring this comic-genius performance on us out of the blue. Against the backdrop of a new locale, as well as a mosaic of cameos that move the plot forward through each new farcical twist, the film achieves a wonderful rhythm in which we're delighted to expect the unexpected, and sometimes we're still surprised.