Love. There are points during “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which celebrates its World Premiere as the opening film of 64th Berlinale tonight, at which it simply floods off the screen. It sounds too lofty perhaps, but how else can you describe the level of minute care that seems to have gone into every single frame, every costume, every tear in every strip of wallpaper? If nothing else (and there is quite a lot else) the film is at times perhaps the apotheosis of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic: a glorious, mischievous sequence of pictorialist plays taking place in a world so perfectly contained it might as well be in a snowglobe. This trademark fetishistic detail makes it feel like it was somehow loved into being, and, for whole passages, we loved it right back, giddily grinning in the dark, already mentally marking out those moments when we’re going to have to hit pause to examine the background, the edge of the frame, the action that happens in the corner of your eye. But as off-kilter affecting as we found its nostalgia for a world of charm and dash that really only ever existed in the movies, and as terrific as almost all of the performances are, as a whole package it fell just slightly short of the promise of its parts. Especially in the final third, when the pace seems to lag and the frenetic joyous inventiveness of what’s gone before slows, we found ourselves experiencing what we can only describe as a slight comedown. Perhaps that’s only relative, because it took us so high, but in a film that already felt longer than it is, we found ourselves unwillingly released from its initial spell too long before the end credits rolled.
But let's hold off on that a moment. Set in the fictional country of Zubrowka (a very fine bison-grass vodka IRL), the film displays an unbelievably precise, irreverent and occasionally very funny eye for the minutiae of a vaguely Germanic, vaguely Eastern European country marked by recognizable, if allegorical 20th century history. (Indeed the Germans in the audience seemed to get a big kick out of some of the in-jokes that went over our heads.) From Belle Epoque throwback through the rise of fascism, to the influence of communism, there is nothing that a perfectly dry sight gag or production design nuance can’t evoke here. And as we all already know, it also deals in different aspect ratios and occasional black-and-white, depending on period, which is an affectation neither as integral to the experience as we might have thought nor as self-conscious as we might have feared. So essentially not only does Anderson create a country here, he creates a parallel, but slightly crazy-mirror version of history too, all delivered through the prism of Golden Age Hollywood comedies—we truly cannot fault his ambition.
There are in fact four time frames represented in the film, but like a pink cake box that falls open, perfectly flat, at the pull of a ribbon, it dispenses with the present-day shell quickly and efficiently and in maybe the least original way possible: with the opening and closing of a book, entitled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” We’re then introduced to the writer of the book in the 1980s (Tom Wilkinson) and then in the 1960s (Jude Law). It is the story that the 1960s author is told (by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham), while staying in the gloriously-rendered faded grandeur of a baroque hotel gone to seed under a communist regime, that forms the bulk of the film. This 1930s segment is where we are introduced to the film’s real hero, M.Gustav (Ralph Fiennes), as he romances rich old ladies, mentors young refugee lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and runs the Grand Budapest to a rigidly perfectionist, and already outdated, code of discretion and honor. When one of his elderly “patronesses” is murdered (Tilda Swinton in some of the best old-lady makeup we’ve ever seen), and Gustav is left a priceless painting, the stage is set for a series of chases, prison breaks, cable car rides and other screwball-ish adventures, sprinkled of course with supporting performances and cameos from an absolutely stellar cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman. The roles may be small but again, they are as loved as anything else in this dollhouse world of Anderson’s. In fact, it occurred to us that perhaps one of the director's greatest talents is in character introductions—the skewering detail, the tiny performance moment that always creates something cherished even when screen time is minimal, and usually while six other things are going on at the same time.
But it’s also the seeds of the film’s (slight) undoing. After the introductions have all happened and the plot now has to go through the business of unfolding we are suddenly on, essentially, a grand caper, that starts to feel episodic and a little empty, especially when Zero and Gustav are away from the fabulous interiors of the stately homes and hotels that are clearly Gustav’s natural element. And the wild goose chase feel isn't helped by the film’s villains, who are given a few neat character moments earlier on (we’re particularly fond of Willem Dafoe and the cat), before becoming very cartoonish in the latter stages. There are still plenty of passing pleasures, but unlike earlier, they don’t seem to be coming at you from all sides and when small things snag your attention (like what we believe is a kind of annoying cheat in the cable car section) it’s hard not to assume that Anderson’s heart is elsewhere. The shame is that it’s in the nature of being told a story to care more about the end than the beginning, as it’s the part you’re left with and the part that dictates the mood in which you’re sent out into the cold. So the slackening of the pace from the third quarter onward is an issue; a slow climb down from a giddy high to, not quite a crash, but certainly the beginning of the end of the sugar rush.
Retrospectively, there is a thematic reason for this change in pace; despite the madcappery, this is probably Anderson’s most melancholic film. M Gustav is referred to as a man out of time, even in his own time; he is dainty, elegant, he is suave (if also unexpectedly profane—all the character’s notes are hit absolutely perfectly by Fiennes, who is perhaps the film’s revelation). Gustav is a representative of a "dying breed of civility in a time of encroaching barbarity," and he is the hero not because he is the man of the hour or even of the decade, but because, as the older Zero lovingly recounts, “he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace”—and it’s hard not to think of Anderson himself in these terms. This, coupled with the film’s meditations on aging and the simple, sad truth that time passes and people die and cherished worlds decay, is where we get to, leaving behind the Lubitschian hijinks of earlier. It is a gear shift downward, and if it can't help but feel deflating overall, there is still something sweet in the film’s sadness. Anderson may make you crave, the way he clearly does, the kind of world in which preternaturally gifted pastry chefs turn every cake into a work of art, or fussy concierges have a secret society populated entirely by the best practitioners of their profession. It is indeed a strange thing to feel a little sad at the absence of something that you never had, but where on earth in the real world might we ever encounter such craft, such dedication to beauty, such attention to detail? Perhaps nowhere, except in a Wes Anderson movie. [B+]