Rap at the walls and melancholia comes echoing back.
Wes Anderson doesn't give a damn about critics who ding his movies for their dollhouse aesthetic and affectless performances. Either you get it or you don't. With his latest effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the writer-director doubles down on everything that makes his pictures his own. The product is so enchanting that even the holdouts will be hard-pressed to resist it.
The intro pinwheels through four time frames and three era-specific aspect ratios to get us to 1932 at the titular hotel, which is located in a fictional Eastern European country. As the clock counts down to world war, Grand Budapest memorializes the last gasps of Old World luxe and gentility. The narration in this stretch comes from Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who recalls his first days as an émigré lobby boy (Tony Revolori). Zero's boss and mentor is the imperturbable concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a nattily mustached, one-man monument to decorum and earthly delights.
When asked about his relationship with Madame D., an octogenarian hotel regular (Tilda Swinton), Gustave casually shrugs and says, "I go to bed with all my friends." But when the moneyed madam turns up dead, the police suspect Gustave of foul play, especially when her will bequeaths him a priceless painting. A chase ensues — the first of many — and Anderson's whodunit hardly stops for breath again.
Grand Budapest is spry and sly, with tickling tributes to Anderson's cinematic forebears. A sequence lifted from Hitchcock made me clap in my seat, while a mountaintop set-piece reminded me of both Black Narcissus and the 1941 Goofy short "The Art of Skiing." (The soundtrack even makes sweet music out of yodeling and the humble triangle.) But Anderson's most special gift is his effortless intermarriage of antic and tragic.
The absurdist facade is there, as in other Anderson films, but rap at the walls and melancholia comes echoing back. Grand Budapest finds real-feeling agitation and ache in its depiction of Europe in crisis. The old way of life is withering, and officials have targeted Zero for his "otherness." Meanwhile, Zero falls hard for Agatha, a feisty baker (Saoirse Ronan). Anderson, a romantic, taps into something carnal here. It suits him.
Grand Budapest is a marvelous spectacle, the kind that begs for an in-theater remote control to let you hit pause and linger on the halo-like lights that herald Agatha's entrance and swoon over the microdetailed production design. But the real miracle is in how well this film works when these bells and whistles are so visible. That artifice pulls you close, capturing your imagination as it places you in a living picture book.