The colors in the lobby of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a European luxury hotel in 1932, are pink, golden yellow and a plasma-colored red. The colors alone convey something majestic but raw. The film’s complex plot hinges on elaborate pastries in pink boxes tied with periwinkle ribbon from a legendary, and make-believe, shop called Mendl’s. (“Mendl’s is the best.”) These hourglass-shaped confections, stuffed with pastry cream and covered in pink and green fondant, seem to be a new type of pastry that exists entirely in Wes Anderson’s imagination. A film has not been so pink nor so dependent on pastel buttercream since Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
The film begins with a framing device, as Anderson’s films almost always do. In this case, there are two. The film opens in 1985, and in the 1.85 aspect ratio most common today, with a young woman (looking like an Eastern Bloc cousin of Margot Tenenbaum) paying tribute to a statue of an honored author. She clutches a favorite book by this author, a novel called The Grand Budapest Hotel.
We next see the statue come to life, in the form of the author in his study, reading from index cards as Nabokov might have. He tells us how this book came to be written, which is a framing device typical of Stefen Zweig, an author Anderson cites as an influence in the credits. He tells a story in 1968, in 2.35 aspect ratio, of a younger version of the author (Jude Law) visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel when it’s past its prime and in the off-season. Walls are inexplicably half yellow and half pink, in midst of some repair or another. He explains how there he met an elegant old man named Zero Moustafa, once extremely wealthy but who now owns the hotel and little else. Moustafa dines well, sleeps in what looks like servant’s quarters, and seems slightly haunted. He tells the young author his story of how he came to befriend and be guided by the hotel’s greatest concierge, M. Gustave (also the name of a new chapter, with a gorgeous, bright red title card that looks almost hand-lettered). This brings us into 1932, which is in a 1.33 square aspect ratio. There, Ralph Fiennes plays this roguish, fastidious hero with a darting, snake-like charm.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is not in Budapest. It’s in the former republic of Zubrowka, a mountainous European nation that seems to be a sister state of Lubitsch’s Flausenthurm (from The Smiling Lieutenant) or Marshovia (The Merry Widow). These fake nations are also likely in league with Cracked Nuts’ El Dorania and, most famously, Duck Soup’s Freedonia. All of these films were released between 1931 and 1934, and the main action in Wes Anderson’s homage takes place in 1932. Why this time period? After the mass deaths of the first world war, Twentieth Century trauma and loss affected everything familiar, so imaginations sought escape in untainted, made-up places. (Not quite utopias, these countries usually featured an uneasy mix of fallen royalty, impossible bureaucracy and wandering livestock.)
Anderson’s between-the-war setting then seems to refer to both world wars, the first in tone and the second in plot, as menacing soldiers in black shirts threaten our hero, Gustave, and his old world ways, as well as the stateless orphan, Zero. The film might be called a post-Marie Antoinette period piece in its rich and unorthodox approach to history as autobiography.
It’s been said that Gustave is a version of Anderson. And it’s true that in the introduction to M. Gustave, in which he zips through the hotel lobby barking orders left and right, he is very reminiscent, in Anderson’s work, of the American Express commercial in which Anderson plays a “director.” There he plays an idealized version of himself based on his heroes, most obviously Truffaut, since the commercial is an homage to Day for Night. But Anderson also seems to be modeling his persona here on old 16mm interviews with John Ford, Howard Hawks and the self-mythologized John Huston. “Making movies. How do you do it? What’s it like?” he asks in clipped and salty tones while wearing a safari suit.
That relationship to his influences—how and maybe even why he makes his work—is what this film is all about. There are direct allusions to films that have popped up frequently in Anderson’s oeuvre: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Man Escaped, L’enfance nue and many Lubitsch films. But more importantly, the film seems to be about his relationship to directors (and also writers) that have influenced him. Gustave, with his dandyish and shy hard-living ways, may be a stand-in for Anderson, but only the way that the Amex “director” character, modeled on outlandish heroes, is Anderson. “To be frank,” Mr. Moustafa says of Gustave, “I think his world vanished long before he entered it.”
In this first film in which Anderson has sole screenwriting credit, he seems to be everyone. He is also, of course, the Author, both in the form of the man who is telling this tale, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his fictionalized self (the Jude Law character) that met his characters and lived among the ruins. But Anderson is also Zero Moustafa, an eager apprentice to his hero. In the most poignant line in the film, Moustafa says about his mentor, “After all, we shared a vocation.” The same line could be said of Anderson and all the directors he references. He shares images from their films (or methods, as in matte painting backgrounds or iris framing devices) as if they were paintings stolen and hung on the walls for new generations. And, fittingly, a major plot point is a painting “of impeccable provenance” that Gustave inherits and then passes on to Zero.
Galleries and museums play a major role in the film. This is fitting because Anderson frames and lights his usually stationary shots with a new emotional resonance, as if they were figurative paintings. In solely the composition, color, and lighting of his scenes, there is intense yet elusive emotion. Watching the film is like taking a stroll in a gallery of the Metropolitan museum, just pausing long enough for the feeling of a painting to hit you, and then quickly moving on. In the rhythm of the edits, too, he seems to have had a breakthrough. It may be the freedom of the square aspect ratio, but he jarringly cuts from profile to close-up in free and bizarrely expressionistic ways.
This film seems to be a culmination of his last six films, which involved self-reflexive storytelling with a display shelf of his influences. He used different aspect ratios once before, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but nobody really noticed. With this film, Anderson has proven he is one of the greatest American directors working today. In film, he seems clearly the inheritor of the 20th Century, or at least its messenger boy.
Miriam Bale is a New York-based freelance writer and film programmer. She regularly contributes to The New York Times and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter.
Wes Anderson (screenplay); Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness (story); Stefan Zweig (inspired by the works of)
Starring: Pretty much everyone. Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan (and many, many more)
Release Date: Mar. 7, 2014 (limited)