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Another Lost Kingdom

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Grand Budapest Hotel

There are ways in which The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s eighth film, feels like the key to all his other works. Set in the fictional Hapsburg-ish dominion of Zubrowka in the twilight of the interwar period, it has as its dominant character a concierge named Gustave H., an arbiter of Old World elegance who presides over the titular hotel — a pink confection, rising against an Alpine backdrop — with a glorious fussiness, an imperious exactitude, as though precision and poetry might suffice to hold modernity at bay.

Inhabited by Ralph Fiennes — not one of Anderson’s usual players, but lending this production the same outsider’s energy that Gene Hackman brought to The Royal Tenenbaums — Gustave has something in common with dutiful servants from stories like The Remains of the Day and Downton Abbey, who keep magical kingdoms running smoothly in the shadow of world war, while the lords and ladies enjoy a few last little melodramas in their old and fated world.

But Anderson isn’t particularly interested in the lords and ladies; he’s more interested in the magic, and so his Gustave is vivid and eccentric, extraordinary and irrepressible, in a way that the black-jacketed servants of Downton are not. (It helps, no doubt, that he’s a continental rather than a professionally uptight Englishman.) A verse-reciting, perfume-wearing dandy, a probable homosexual who sleeps with his rich, elderly female guests (but only the blondes), he’s an apostle of sophistication rather than a monk of service, committed to keeping alive what he calls the “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

Under his spell falls a teenaged orphan from the Near East, who goes by “Zero” and whose title in the Grand Budapest is “Lobby Boy.” (He’s also the narrator, or one of them — the movie is framed by flashbacks-within-flashbacks, which begin in present-day Zubrowka and then leap back to the hotel’s hideous Soviet-era incarnation, where an aging, wealthy Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham, tells Gustave’s story to a visiting novelist played by Jude Law.)

Initially just Gustave’s protégé, Zero becomes his partner in an increasingly complicated caper, which begins with the apparent murder of one of the concierge’s aged conquests, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, buried under face putty). The noblewoman’s will leaves an invaluable painting in her concierge/lover’s hands, and soon her sinister son (Adrien Brody) and his even more sinister henchman (Willem Dafoe) have Gustave on the run, in a chase that takes us from a prison cell to a monastery in the heights of the Zubrowkan Alps, and allows for cameos from the usual Andersonian roster of Murrays and Wilsons and Goldblums along the way.

Meanwhile, love intrudes: Zero and Gustave receive crucial assistance from the lobby boy’s paramour, a young dessert chef (Saoirse Ronan) with a Mexico-shaped birthmark, whose boxed-up confections contain highly civilized deliciousness and sometimes smuggle weaponry as well. And inevitably, war intrudes, too, as the Zubrowkan military police (led by a helmeted Edward Norton) are elbowed aside by black-clad, lightning-bolted SS types, whose presence makes the movie a kind of cometragedy, with darkness waiting at the end of farce.

One need not overinterpret all of this, I think, to see in Gustave’s meticulous magician a clear stand-in for Anderson himself, his interests and preoccupations and artistic habits. In a recent New York Times piece, Fiennes was quoted as remarking that Anderson “feels there’s a world that happened before, which he might have been happy in.” This seems exactly right: Whether they’re set in the present or the past, all of his films are inhabited by characters who seem slightly out of time, and defined by nostalgia for things and habits and institutions that the 20th century did away with — an E. B. White–esque New York in Tenenbaums, a Raj-esque India in The Darjeeling Limited, a magical English countryside in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and now the Stefan Zweig/Joseph Roth Central Europe that drowned under Fascism and Communism.

But this time, with Gustave and The Grand Budapest, the self-consciousness is sharpened, the artifice is more exposed, and the unrealism of looking backward is explicitly conceded. The concierge’s “world had vanished long before he entered it,” the aging Zero tells Law’s novelist, casting the film itself as an exercise not just in nostalgia, but in nostalgia for nostalgia — which amounts to a rueful acknowledgment that the critical world’s anti-Andersonians can sometimes have a point.

This self-knowledge is not enough to make The Grand Budapest Hotel one of Anderson’s best movies, because it falls short in another crucial area. Its youthful Zero is a bit of a, well, you know (as is his lady love), which robs the movie of the kind of strong early-adolescent, or stunted-adolescent, or old-soul/young-body perspective that the Andersonian magic seems to need to really do its work.

Rushmore had this perspective, of course; Tenenbaums had it in the technically adult but actually arrested Tenenbaum kids; Moonrise Kingdom, his last film before Grand Budapest (and one of his best), had it twice over in its teenage runaways. Whereas the new movie has only Gustave, with Zero as his straight man and everyone else essentially doing cameos.

As great as Fiennes is, that isn’t enough for greatness. But for fans and students of Andersonia, this one is still essential.

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