■ Rating: R for profanity, brief sexual content and some violence.
■ Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
By John Beifuss
Like the tool-stuffed pastries baked by the film’s winsome young Agatha, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — the latest delight from writer/director/master chef Wes Anderson — is an irresistible frosted confection with a steely, purposeful center.
The title edifice itself, sometimes represented by an old-fashioned miniature of the type that would have been constructed in the golden era of studio moviemaking, resembles a pink layer cake, its rococo ornamentation suggesting the sugared flowers and cream flourishes of an expert dessert decorator.
You’ll want to lick the bowl, but gluttony has its price, because each swallow represents something that never can be recovered. As the hotel’s legendary concierge Gustave observes, astutely if absurdly, when the veneer of gentility is scuffed by the jackboots of fascism: “The beginning of the end of the end of the beginning has begun.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel (lodging and movie alike) is set within the fictional alpine republic of Zubrowka in extreme Eastern Europe, so, appropriately, the movie is constructed like a Russian nesting doll, with each succeeding narrative enclosing another.
The film begins with a framing device in (apparently) the present; the action soon travels back to 1985 and then to 1962, where a young writer (Jude Law) encounters a mysterious old man (F. Murray Abraham) inside the no longer quite grand hotel, now an “enchanting old ruin” that is “too decadent for current tastes.”
The old man is called Zero Moustapha, a name that likely is Anderson’s homage to comic actor Zero Mostel but also an appropriate assessment of Moustapha’s social status — zero — in 1932, when he was a “penniless immigrant,” war refugee and “junior lobby boy in training” to the hotel’s longtime and “liberally perfumed” master concierge, the dandyish Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a taskmaster whose insistence on maintaining an impeccable level of courtesy for guests extends to the bedroom services he provides the dowager countess (Tilda Swinton) and other wealthy matriarchs. (The young Zero is played by Tony Revolori, whose pencil-thin mustache in the role is literal: We watch him draw it on, in a bedroom mirror.)
When the countess is found dead, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens its elegant doors to the hoariest of plot elements: a murder mystery, a contested will, a stolen painting and so on. Gustave winds up in prison. His rivals in the outside world are played by Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody; these villains are harbingers of a greater evil, a blunt brutality that erases the class distinctions between concierge and lobby boy.
In synopsis, this may not sound like a product of the man whose filmography includes “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” but Anderson’s work never has been thoughtless or simply decorative or (forgive me) “quirky.” In any case, all this drama and comedy and action is presented with the director’s signature painstaking visual charm and control.
The film’s aspect ratios — the dimensions of the frame — also allude to the era in which the action of each particular episode takes place. Because the majority of the story is set in 1932, most of the film is in the squarish “academy” ratio that was standard before the movies embraced widescreen in the 1950s, to distinguish the film image from the inferior picture found on the “idiot box” in every American home.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is verbally eccentric, too. Anderson and co-screenwriter Hugo Guinness delight in words seldom heard in movies: “guttersnipe,” “inchoate,” “sacristy.” These unusual words are sprinkled through the film like random surprise treats, as are the cameos by such welcome performers as Bill Murray and Harvey Keitel.
Anderson’s film offers comic relief, inside a dark cinema, from the metaphorical but more oppressive darkness outside the movie house walls. But for all its humor and wonder, it doesn’t deny that such darkness exists, which is one reason the movie is so heartbreaking and inspiring. Says Gustave to Zero, reacting to a moment of grace amid the escalating chaos of events: “You see, there still are faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”
Strong words to find written across a pink layer cake. But doesn’t each generation look over its shoulder and see doomsday gaining?
We can only imagine Anderson was at once thinking of himself and spoofing his persona when he has the adult Zero offer this eulogy to his old boss, the concierge: “His world had vanished long before he had entered it. But I must say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”