The best storytelling and moviemaking combine mythic scope with closely observed detail. The books of Chris Van Allsburg, for example, are enchanting for both adults and kids because their preposterous stories are told in such lushly illustrated detail. The author/illustrator came to mind while watching director Wes Anderson’s eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, bring his audience to a rapturous and childlike state. The serial adventure story is a delirious collection of eccentric characters and tropes from a long history of espionage war movies ostensibly based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, a prolific and best-selling Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer of the ’20s and ’30s. Loosely inspired, I assume, would be more accurate. The film starts with a little girl carrying a book at the memorial to a great “Author,” which segues to a scene with the man himself (Tom Wilkinson) reading to us from this book. The narration is taken over by the voice of his younger self (a bespectacled Jude Law); it is the story of how the tale of the Grand Budapest Hotel was told to him years ago by a solitary old gentleman who lived at the hotel named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). He in turn relates his yarn of when he was a young “Lobby Boy” named Zero (Tony Revolori) and how he came to own the establishment.
So begins the frenzied feast of lavish and preposterous set pieces, performances, and tall tales. Anderson buffs will feast on the thematic/visual details of his signature style: fragile love, pompous authority figures, kids popping in and out of scenes and at the edges of frames, bold contrasting color pallets and elaborate set designs, rapid cut-aways to peculiar inconsequential characters, point-of-view camera pans, shots from overhead and from low angles looking upward, comfortingly symmetrical compositions, and an endless parade of cameos, including appearances by regulars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray.
The narrative’s central figure is the effete and charming Monsieur Gustave, performed by Ralph Fiennes in an impeccable comic performance. He plays the concierge of the hotel (“a liberally perfumed man”) who is also a bit of a gigolo, surreptitiously sleeping with his older women guests: “When you are young, you have filets, but eventually must move on to the cheaper cuts,” he muses. He maintains a tight ship at the hotel while spouting eloquent declamations on this and that, often giving up or being interrupted before he finishes the thought.
When one of Gustave’s favored older patrons, Madame D (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), is murdered in her home, he is bequeathed, through her will, a Johannes Van Hoytl Renaissance masterpiece Boy With an Apple. (This fictional painting was a commission for British figurative painter Michael Taylor.) The concierge steals the painting in order to stash it for safe keeping, replacing it with a vaguely obscene Egon Schiele drawing. Madame D’s enraged son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (a dastardly villain played with foul-mouthed glee by Adrian Brody) frames Gustave for the murder. With the help of Zero, Gustave must find a way to escape from prison and clear his name.
To enhance the askew feeling of the tale-within-a-tale structure, Anderson frames his images in aspect ratios, or screen sizes, that range from 1.37 (academy ratio or kind of square) to 1.85 (widescreen or letterbox). The square scenes often blur at the edges, like an old photo (or Instagram). The cinematography by the director’s longtime cameraman Robert D. Yeoman, with whom he has developed a signature camera and framing style, makes the most of the fastidiously detailed storybook production design by Adam Stockhausen (12 Years a Slave). The film’s look is also driven by the immaculate art direction by Stephan Gessler (Inglourious Basterds) and the nuanced splendor of the costumes by three-time Oscar winner Milena_Canonero, who worked with the director on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Darjeeling Limited, as well as serving as the costume designer for Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Dick Tracy, and Julie Taymor’s Titus. Add to this impressive line-up the music of the prolific French composer Alexandre Desplat and you have cinematic collaboration dedicated to successfully creating an uncommon imaginative vision.
There are also Anderson’s usual assortment of colorfully cast cameos: Willem Defoe is the henchman Joling, a pitiless human bulldog; Harvey Keitel, bald as a baby’s backside, is the prisoner Ludwig, the mastermind of the prison escape; a charming Saoirse Ronan (“flat as board and had a birthmark of Mexico on her cheek”) is Zero’s brave love interest; Edward Norton is the officious military authority Henkels; two wonderful French actors with great faces, Léa Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric, have key roles but are mostly mute.
Despite the film’s rich attention to design and the precision and playfulness of its camera work, The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t fall into the trap of style over substance. It plays seriously with the expectations and possibilities of both the moving image and the art of yarn-spinning. Of course, the movie begins as a story within a story, turning the audience into stand-ins for children at storytime. But the film, though always ridiculous, is at times surprisingly violent and, in unexpected ways, even sexual. The screenplay/writing/ narration penned by Anderson is clever and ornate. There is a blend of classic comedy styles here. Visual gags, of which there are many, are pulled off with slapstick timing. There are madcap situations, cartoonish displays, and a Mr. Fox style stop-motion chase scene. One brilliant prison escape sequence assembles a fantastic concatenation of holes, ladders, bumps, and leaps that is pure Super Mario Brothers. The finale of The Grand Budapest Hotel jumbles together clichés that round-out the end of a dozen war pictures. The stereotypes remind us of the film’s long stock of allusions and character types. But the finale also, in its sheer nerviness, asserts, once again, the imaginative power of the movies to spin a mean yarn.