M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) lives in a giant, pink, Wes Anderson-constructed gift box called The Grand Budapest Hotel, where he’s the stylishly eccentric concierge, a romantic attendant to elderly grand dames and a devotee of a fragrance known as L’Air de Panache -- a musk that rejuvenates his will to go on living in the way that spinach energizes Popeye.
The hotel is situated in a fictional twentieth century Europe between The Wars, and Gustave is its highly self-regarding filter, taking new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) under his protective wing as protégé. Like another Anderson protagonist, Rushmore’s Max Fischer, Gustave controls his surroundings, building an elegant cocoon (he’s based on Austrian author and well-documented dandy Stefan Zweig). If it’s not The Best, it’s not welcome in his luxurious mini-kingdom.
Then come the Nazis. Except here they’re known as Zig-Zags, an abstracted form of fascism making for both ugly decoration and constant impediment to Gustave’s commitment to gracious living, a commitment that involves keeping a priceless Renaissance masterpiece out of the hands of a greedy philistine (Adrian Brody), landing in prison and then plotting a comically meticulous break-out, fostering a bakery-born romance between Zero and pretty young pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), then embarking on a series of getaways involving skis, bobsleds, motorcycles and refined conveyance by train.
It’s an impeccably artful caper, just as its fussy aesthete would have it, with good guys and bad guys (Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric) zooming in and then zooming out as the story is told from the present backwards: first as a young woman reading a book titled The Grand Budapest Hotel, revealed to be an old man’s (Tom Wilkinson) story of his younger self (Jude Law) as he listens to the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) recount his exploits with his mentor. It’s a box inside a box inside a box, echoing the faded pink exterior of the hotel and the beguiling pink pastry boxes that are never far from the action.
As historically aware as an Anderson film should be, given the hermetic, vintage universe of good design and finicky heroes he’s created to live within them, Grand Budapest Hotel is really about honoring promises, the malleability of memory, and asserting an existence on one’s own terms, even if its outcome involves sorrow – and there’s always sorrow. Gustave’s ostensibly shallow concerns build meaning out of beauty as life falls apart. His worldview – just like his creator’s – is about privileging the fantastical, thoughtful and precise over the chaotic and ugly, making it all a gifting event where objects like perfume and miniature dessert towers become symbols of resistance (best line: “Never be a candyass”) and resilience, warding off the brutality of real life. It’s not style over substance, it’s style as substance.