In The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.
The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.
The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.
On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.
Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.