The latest Wes Anderson movie is set in a perfect Wes Anderson place: a large hotel in a fictional country. The hotel is The Grand Budapest, and the country is Zubrowka, located on the eastern fringe of the European empire. It allows Anderson’s iconic style to permeate every facet of his creation without any anachronistic objections. A rectangular resort is the ideal dioramic dollhouse for his beloved tracking shots, his hard right angles and comical symmetry. Here, everything operates on a swivel following a grid made from pinks, purples and greens.
Technically speaking, this may be Anderson’s best, most precise visual work. The bright colors, the finite details, the hallmark compositions are all there, only this time, they are better harnessed and more intensely choreographed. In recent years, Anderson’s own last name has become an adjective for his idiosyncratic filmmaking, and, perhaps unfairly, his style-over-substance approach.
The Grand Budapest Hotel begins in the present with a girl admiring a famous author’s statue. It then works back to 1968, as Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham, Inside Llewyn Davis) recalls working as a teenage protégé to the film’s protagonist and hotel owner, Mr. Gustave, dressed in purple velvet and played by Ralph Fiennes. It is a Russian doll of memories, offering a welcome but not always reliable relay of first hand accounts.
Mr. Gustave, as we come to know, is a strict but charming manager. His clientele is comprised of mostly female retirees, whom he seduces. His most beloved lover is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, The Zero Theorem), a painted-up, sagging belle, who happens to be the matriarch of a wealthy family estate. Her unexpected death prompts her family and acquaintances to divvy out her will, including its most prized possession: a Renaissance painting entitled, “Boy with Apple.” Her son Dmitiri (Adrien Brody with another Dali mustache, Third Person) smirks with his assumed inheritance. “M. Gustave,” reads the executor. The shrieks of conspiracy pierce the anonymous purple suit emerging from the back.
Amid the chaos of the revelatory news, Gustave is charged with murder by Dmitri and is sent to prison so Zero (Tony Revolori, “Shameless”), with help from his girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan, The Host), facilitates a jailbreak. It is perfectly orchestrated and exemplifies Anderson’s cinematic palette: meticulous, silly and competent. It is a great scene, delivering both substance and style.
The two sprint across Europe and are pursued by a demonic hit-man (Willem Dafoe, A Most Wanted Man) with brass knuckles who brings the film uncharacteristic pulp. This is a darker, perverse and more melancholic version of Anderson, though again dutifully catered musically by Alexandre Desplat, their third straight pairing.
Anderson based some of the movie off of stories from Stefan Zweig, a novelist who fled Austria once Hitler came to power. A similar kind of fascist anxiety exists in the background of Budapest, specifically as SS-looking guards interrogate Gustave and Zero in a train car.
A nostalgic, wondrous glow infects the movie. The chronology may be distorted, the colors embellished, the characters melded into caricatures, but this is all to the movie’s benefit. Anderson suggests his style is just the equivalent of a memory.