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By Julian Carrington.
“Let’s make an agreement,” declares Anjelica Huston’s estranged matriarch to her trio of wayward sons in the penultimate scene of The Darjeeling Limited (2007): “We’ll stop feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s not very attractive.” Following the downbeat double-header of Darjeeling and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)—which had seen cinema’s most meticulous purveyor of deadpan dramedy edging towards gloomy stagnation, his maquette-scaled fantasy worlds buckling under the weight of too-real trauma and familial upheaval—Wes Anderson seems to have taken that self-penned advice to heart. Though he’s remained preoccupied with crisis-stricken kin groups, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) saw him resizing his pet themes to fit the form of a fleet, family-friendly entertainment, and the outcome was his best, and decidedly least dolorous, film in more than a decade. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) consolidated that return to form, transferring Fox’s fairytale hijinks to a live-action context and tempering the bitterness of its pre-teen protagonists’ broken homes with the sweet sincerity of their blossoming mutual affection.
True to this trend, The Grand Budapest Hotel—which bowed at Berlin to glowing notices and earned Anderson the Grand Jury Prize, his first award at a major film festival—further affirms its writer-director’s revitalization even as it rearticulates his fixations with mourning and ruptured relationships, as well as his palpable fascination with bygone eras. More so than even Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s eighth feature displays a lively continuity with Fantastic Mr. Fox’s gleeful storybook sensibility in its principal setting, an interwar vision of Mitteleuropa as only Anderson could conceive it: a matte-painted mountaintop wonderland called Zubrowka, liberally furnished with miniatures that resemble icing-laden confections as much as they do life-sized edifices. Against this ornate backdrop, Anderson orchestrates a madcap caper that finds, as per Fox, a light-fingered hero and his faithful sidekick engaged in an increasingly high-stakes battle of wits with a coalition of pitiless foes, paralleled with the typically Andersonian trope of a Type A protagonist attempting to buttress his neatly ordered domain against an encroaching catastrophe. Here, that protagonist is the titular establishment’s punctilious concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and his domain no less than a waning epoch of Old World civility soon to be destroyed by the successive scourges of fascist thuggery and communist privation.
If this unusually expansive subject matter seems like a dramatic departure from the hermetically insular worlds that have become Anderson’s trademark, one should recall that his films have always evinced Europhilic proclivities, from Max Fischer’s clichéd Gallic affectations (“C’est la vie”) to the Françoise Hardy chansons that score the adolescent angst of Moonrise Kingdom. And just as in Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson found in the curdled wit of Roald Dahl an English analogue to his brand of sardonically maudlin all-American malaise, so here he finds a kindred spirit in the Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig, one-time world-renowned literary icon and secondhand martyr to Nazi barbarism, having taken his own life in despair while in exile in 1942. Not only do Zweig’s wistful melodramas rhyme nicely with Anderson’s own pronounced sense of nostalgia—the title of Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday, is an apt descriptor for the deliberately hazy timeframes of many of Anderson’s films—but through Zweig Anderson also evokes that generation of émigré European film artists (Lubitsch, Wilder, Ophüls) who helped to usher in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Beyond its romanticized conception of interbellum social graces, Anderson’s latest is also indebted to Zweig for its intricate story-within-story structure. The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in the present day, as a young girl stands reverently before the elaborate headstone of an unnamed author. She produces a hardbound volume entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose pages transport the film back into the recollections of a Zweig-like novelist (Tom Wilkinson) circa 1985, as he recounts his visit to the alpine retreat some two decades prior. In a further flashback, the younger author (Jude Law) wanders the Grand Budapest’s spartan, Cold War-era corridors and encounters the property’s gracious but forlorn proprietor Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who proceeds to relate a fanciful account of how the once luxurious lodging first came into his possession. As the frame contracts to a period-appropriate 1.37:1 ratio, the film finally sets down in the hotel’s ’30s heyday, shortly after a teenaged Zero (Tony Revolori) has arrived in Zubrowka, rendered stateless by an unspecified war. The plot commences in earnest when Zero takes a position as the Grand Budapest’s junior lobby boy, and is swept up in an intrigue triggered by Gustave’s predilection for gerontophilic trysts.
As the farcical escapade kicks into high gear, Zweig’s influence gives way to a touch of Lubitsch as Anderson continues to hone his rediscovered facility for nimbly intermingling the comic and the tragic. Even as Gustave’s escalating misadventures yield plenty of gags—he’s framed for murder, stages an absurdly circuitous prison break, and narrowly survives a breakneck ski chase—they also portend a menace that belies their screwball staging, evident in the surprisingly grisly demises of several supporting players and Anderson’s allusions to the encroaching Nazi scourge, as embodied in the mountain hamlet’s SS-styled police force and the leather-clad, skull-knuckled killer-for-hire (a superbly sinister Willem Dafoe) hot on Gustave’s heels. Where the Anderson of the mid-’00s tended to overplay his fraught and looming sense of loss—both The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited feature prominent, notionally wrenching calamities that fall shy of their intended emotional marks—Anderson 2014 appears to better appreciate the dramatic constraints of his highly mannered style. In turn, as with Rushmore (1998) and Moonrise Kingdom, the darker elements of The Grand Budapest Hotel lurk predominantly on the periphery, and prove all the more poignant for their comparative subtlety.
Much of the credit for the new film’s appealing vitality must go to Gustave himself, who, despite the lineage he shares with Anderson’s previous, self-reflexively fastidious leading men, remains a singularly memorable creation. As superlatively played by Fiennes, he is at once a rigorous disciplinarian and a droll, rakish dandy, given equally to florid recitations of poetry and piquant profanities. While first and foremost a sparkling comedic turn, Fiennes’ Gustave is also supplemented with a soulful dimension courtesy of the actor’s natural gravitas, as well as a valiant, combative spirit. If Anderson has previously allowed his twee melancholy to suffocate his storytelling, The Grand Budapest Hotel makes his fixation with the past, in Gustave’s fight to preserve his cherished, outmoded customs against the inexorable march of history, into the very stuff of its drama. It is, of course, a losing battle, but it’s difficult not to marvel at the effort.