There’s a joke that runs through The Grand Budapest Hotel like a thin, fine wire. It usually, but not always, involves Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the devoted concierge of the titular hotel in the mountains of Zubrowka, which is a fictional country ravaged by decentralizing war in fashions similar to actual European nations of the 1930s. Ludicrously soon after a fresh calamity or inconvenience, someone will attempt to sentimentalize or commemorate the transpired event with a poetic stanza, only to be dashed, with amusingly flippant suddenness, by the immediate realities of the situation at hand. An ode to man’s foible might inadvertently end with a resigned “Ah, fuck it.”
The film’s meanings reside in the various permutations of that joke. Like a few of Jean Renoir’s heroes, the characters in Wes Anderson’s latest and greatest film are scrambling to maintain a degree of compassion and stately civility in the midst of the unfathomable symbolic rise of the Axis party. Informed by the writing of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s plot is misleadingly delightful, with chases and dastardly villains and elegant buffoonery. Gustav inherits a priceless portrait, Boy with Apple, from a deceased lover, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), and must do battle with her corrupt relatives, who frame him for the woman’s murder and set him scrambling about Eastern Europe setting things right. In the midst of this adventure, Gustav plays matchmaker to protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) and a brilliant pastry chef, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and their romance is revealed to be the heart of the story, the source of the film’s unshakable poignancy.
The film is structured as a tribute to an act of kindness that ripples like a pond that’s been breached by a tossed stone, to a gesture that speaks louder than any of Gustav’s more conscious attempts to control the scope of his legacy. The man presents himself as a foppish dandy, but underneath those pretensions, which are probably assumed to cover his shame over his own humble origins, beats the heart of a romantic hero. He never treats Zero, a refugee of a country already quashed by the rising fascist regime, as anything but a gentleman and a co-conspirator, and that sense of acceptance empowers the latter to win Agatha and cement the beginnings of his new adult life. This act of kindness is paid forward by an aging Zero (now F. Murray Abraham) in the 1960s to a writer (Jude Law) who ponders the mysterious old man sitting in the dilapidated old hotel. That gesture is remembered by the writer (now Tom Wilkinson) in an interview recorded years later, which itself appears in a book read by a young woman in the present, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Agatha. That young woman, we’re to assume, is paying homage to a writer who recorded her family’s legacy.
You have to parse the screen for much of this information, though, which partially explains why Anderson is underrated in certain circles that might prefer films that more obviously sound their themes aloud. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson has grown into a dry, nearly abstract sentimental formalist who obsessively imbues every image with implicative remorse and heartbreak. (Both appear to be heavily inspired by Stanley Kubrick.) The hotel is the most obvious marvel: a great pink dream palace that suggests one of Agatha’s cakes if she had lived long enough to pay homage to the mythical cinematic realms of Marienbad and the Overlook. Anderson cannily uses aspect ratios to affirm his vision of the past as a place of vanishing warmth and harmony: The 1930s segments are shot in a box ratio, which mirrors the films of that era while subtly bringing the actors closer together in a communal frame. The other timelines are staged in a wide scope, and the actors are often positioned at opposite ends of a frame that emphasizes the lonely chasms between them, or the atmospheres that dwarf them.
The remarkable editing accentuates this bemused alienation. The usual fragile, graceful Anderson punchlines are interrupted with surprisingly crude and violent shards of incident that echo the chaos that his heroes are desperately attempting to ward off with their belabored protocol. Jokes hit you and intensify upon retrospection; the humor burns away, leaving only despair. A bad guy finds that Gustav has taken Boy with Apple and replaced it with a sexually explicit painting that resembles a Schiele, which the villain breaks apart in a frustrated action that reflects the abuse of the stolen and lost art associated with the Holocaust. Agatha pointedly isn’t introduced until late in the film, when half of her story has seemingly already been told off screen—a structural quirk that deepens upon your realization of her fate and Zero’s crushed remembrance of her. The film’s most heartbreaking touch is a blink-and-miss one: of the elderly Zero and the writer having their desert, which has clearly been modeled after Agatha’s beautiful little cakes from decades ago.
Anderson’s evolving mise-en-scène, which now abounds in a hall-of-mirrors reflexivity that will probably take a dozen viewings to fully unpack, corresponds to an evolving point of view. All of his films explore the futility of a certain kind of egocentric fussiness as embodied by a quest for perfection of art, and, until now, they’ve criticized those quests as evasions of the messiness of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel also understands this striving for control as an illustration of a grand optimism. The beauty of Gustav’s elaborate customs, or of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s absurd opulence, or of Agatha’s cakes, is that they embody art that exists for its own sake, as affirmation of the wealth of mystery, imagination, and decency that life can contain. Gustav is literally willing to die for his aesthetics, which are intricately tied to his good manners, and he thusly reveals himself to be an Anderson hero that’s moved away from self-absorption toward transcendence.
This attentive transfer boasts an image with remarkable depth of field, robust colors, and intricate foreground detail, which is most evident in the textured close-ups of the actors’ faces. There’s even a helpful reminder to ensure that you have your television adjusted to the 16:9 format, so as to properly register the contrast of the various aspect ratios of the compositions. The sound mixes precisely balance the rich, full-bodied non-diegetic, particularly Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score, with the quiet nuances of the diegetic, such as the rapid-fire dialogue or the fatal slamming of a vast metal door.
The vignettes (which are really deleted scenes) and the tour of the film’s shooting locations with Bill Murray are charming, if slight. But come on. You know The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably, at most, two years away from a Criterion Collection edition with multiple commentaries and documentaries and overstuffed scrapbooks that elucidate on every aspect of the film’s making. This stuff is clearly a placeholder. Rounding out the package are forgettable promo pieces and the theatrical trailer.
This release of Wes Anderson’s despairing and subtle comic masterpiece is almost certainly a placeholder for a more illuminative future Criterion edition, but the excellent transfer goes a long way toward soothing the pain of an inevitable double-dip.