Walk into the lobby of the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood and you’ll find the Grand Budapest Hotel. A scale model, to be exact, painted a soft pink with white trim and mint-green rooftops. It would make a beautiful dollhouse, though I doubt it would stand up to the abuse of child’s play. It seems delicate, like a model done in mille-feuille, a thing not to be touched, never mind eaten. I snapped a couple pictures with my phone, but they don’t do it justice. The framing is all wrong, the lighting off.
A placard to the side announces that this is the original Grand Budapest Hotel from the film of the same name. That strikes me as exactly correct. For although it may be the hotel we see on the film’s posters and trailers, we spend almost as much time inside its later iteration, a Soviet-era concrete structure with fluorescent-lit orange interiors. This perfect miniature is the way the Grand Budapest Hotel looked originally.
Under normal circumstances, I enter a movie theater ready to watch a story unfold, but with the model hotel on my mind and Anderson’s reputation for sumptuous production design preceding him, I found myself constantly drawn to visual elements, costumes, sets, furniture, and, again and again, the pastries baked and decorated by one of the film’s minor characters.
Given the film’s title, I expected far more of the action to take place in the hotel itself. But though the protagonist is the Budapest’s renowned concierge, his journey takes him far away from the luxurious confines of his private kingdom. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder-mystery, but not of the Clue variety. No, in order to tell his story, Anderson spends as much time, if not more, outside of the hotel. Having set the action in the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka, he sets about giving us a Grand Tour. We’re taken to an opulent castle, a high-walled internment camp, a mountain top observatory and, even higher up the peak, a monastery. We’re shuttled between locations by train, tram, motorcycle and, in one exhilarating chase sequence, skis and a sled. Zubrovka itself is in turmoil—it’s 1932, and the country is under attack by invaders dressed stylishly in gray and black; the takeover and occupation, almost always in the background, adds an extra charge to the proceedings.
In his previous films, Anderson built his stories around a single location: Rushmore Academy, the Tenenbaum townhouse, Team Zissou’s research vessel the Belafonte, The Darjeeling Limited. Here, the hotel of the title is merely one part of a much larger world. It is, basically, a metonym for the director’s worldview. The astounding thing is, in widening the scope, Anderson doesn’t lose his eye for detail. That model of the Grand Budapest Hotel is only one version of the seemingly dozens of iterations of the hotel that appear throughout the movie. Even when post-production effects are necessarily deployed, they only supplement the practical, non-CGI, work. So while the mountainous landscape behind the hotel is inserted in post, the background itself is a traditional matte painting.
The overall effect is whimsical—a term critics sometimes use to dismiss Anderson’s movies—but it’s also more than the sum of its adjectives. The movie, like the hotel, is ethereally grand. And though all aspects of the film are composed with equal care, the most striking effects are used to spotlight a lost world, a brief moment in time between two wars, a period of decadence and refinement the likes of which cannot be replicated.
This is a broad statement, but one that the film’s structure insists on. In what should be a maddeningly twee bit of storytelling panache, Anderson buries the main narrative under multiple frames. Only once we reach the core of the story, which requires the assistance of a memoir—also titled The Grand Budapest Hotel—the videotaped recollections of its author, the narration of the author’s younger self as a guest at the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968, and his recollection of a conversation shared with Mr. Moustafa, the mysterious owner of the hotel, about a particularly eventful time in the hotel’s history. It sounds complex, but when played out on screen it feels effortless.
Oh, I suppose I should mention that The Grand Budapest Hotel is more than just a series of beautiful sets and models. It’s also a rollicking adventure, a kind of inverted picaresque. The roguish hero is here replaced by the effete concierge of the hotel, M. Gustave, a purple-clad, purple prose-spouting dandy with a thing for wealthy, aging blondes. His sidekick is Mr. Moustafa, known by name as Zero and by the inscription on his cap, Lobby Boy. M. Gustave, upon hearing about the death of Madame D., longtime hotel patron and sometime lover, sets out to pay his respects to the dearly departed D. When he arrives, he finds himself the recipient of a priceless work of art and, moments later, a suspect in her murder. Pursued by the military police, Madame D.’s dour, villainous children, and their hired detective/assassin Jopling, Gustave and Zero manage to hide the painting. But, unfortunately, they cannot hide themselves. While Zero is left to toil as lobby boy, M. Gustave is dragged off to an internment camp and left to rot.
Needless to say, he escapes, but what a glorious escape it is. Anderson takes clichés—tools hidden in cakes, secret tunnels, bed sheet-ropes—and pushes them to their extreme. It’s an exceptionally long scene featuring a comically long ladder (I was reminded of the falling-chain gag in Twins) and the key to its success, like most great comedy, lies in its excess. When M. Gustave, free from prison but with nowhere to run, calls upon the Society of the Crossed Keys, a sort of League of Extraordinary Concierges, his message is relayed between not one or two different men, but by at least a half-dozen, each of whom has their own lobby boy. It’s an exercise in repetition that finds wit in overabundance.
The same goes for the film as a whole. Like M. Gustave’s long speechifying on the virtues of poetry and cleanliness, any piece taken in isolation—the complicated narrative structure, the elaborate sets and costumes—would be insufferable. But the whole thing is delivered with such zest and in such quantity that one can’t help but marvel at the spectacle.
Stephen Tyler is a writer living in Los Angeles.