We should all be so lucky as to live in a world designed, peopled and manipulated by Wes Anderson.
His latest film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," is a dark, daft and deft triumph of design details. From the purple velvet with red piping hotel uniforms to the drinks, colognes and artwork of Europe between the World Wars, Anderson ensconces his eccentric characters and us in a time of baroque, imaginary 4-star hotels run on what used to pass for 4-star service.
It’s all about framing -- the odd aspect ratios Anderson plays with in the shape of the screen, elongated -- made to fit narrow rooms, tall elevators, funicular rail cars and tall actors like Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton. Fittingly, the story is a framework within a frame, a tale told by a long-dead novelist (Tom Wilkinson) about what inspired his famous novel, a tall tale he heard as a younger man (Jude Law) from the owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) of the gone-to-seed Grand Budapest Hotel.
And framed within that framing device is the long flashback to the old hotel owner’s youth, when Zero Moustafa was "lobby boy" to the famed concierge, Monsieur Gustave, played with hilarious relish by Fiennes.
M. Gustave is all about service and good manners, maintaining "the faint glimmer" of civilization as war is about to break out all around the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka.
"A lobby boy is completely invisible, but always in sight," he lectures.
And M. Gustave? His attentions all go to the guests -- little old ladies that this perfumed and flamboyant dandy beds during their stay at the Grand Budapest.
"I go to bed with all my friends," he croons. It’s just part of the service.
But when a guest (Tilda Swinton, hidden in old age makeup) dies and Gustave is in the will, the concierge faces his ugliest foes -- an heir (Adrien Brody) and that heir’s murderous henchman (Willem Dafoe). Before this tangled knot unravels, Zubrowka will be invaded, Gustave will steal a famous painting and be framed for murder, and we’ll see a prison break, a snowy chase on skis and sleds (filmed with miniatures and dolls) and a noisy shootout.
And the old hotel owner Mr. Moustafa will remember the love of his younger self (Tony Revolori): the birthmarked baker (Saoirse Ronan, in Scots accent) who helped him try to save M. Gustave from the violence and bad manners and prison sentence threatening his happiness.
There are hints of many jaunty earlier Anderson films here -- "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Royal Tenenbaums." But here there are balalaikas and bursts of violence and profanity and sexual crudeness that jolt us into remembering the cruelty that M. Gustave is keeping at bay, and into realizing this sentimental world of rich dowagers drifting from spa to spa isn’t as genteel as it seems.
The Wes Anderson repertory company -- from Jason Schwartzman to Bill Murray -- went to Germany with him to film this funny fantasia. Harvey Keitel, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and many other faces familiar from indie and European film turn up in the sets of the Hotel Borse (in Gorelitz, Germany) and Potsdam of this quirkier-than-quirky movie, which Anderson says in the credits was inspired by the Austrian Belle Epoch novels of Stefan Zweig.
Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (R). Written and directed by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness. A Fox Searchlight release. At Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington). 1 hour 39 minutes
F. Murray Abraham