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 hotel uniforms with red piping 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 four-star hotels run on what used to pass for four-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 including 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.
Framed within that framing device is the long flashback to the old hotel owner's youth, when Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) 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. He usually follows his lectures with a florid and overlong poem of his own composition, but no one pays attention to those.
And M. Gustave? His attentions all go to the guests, little old ladies whom 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 M. 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, M. Gustave will steal a famous painting and be framed for murder, and we'll see a prison break, a noisy shootout and a snowy chase on skis and sleds (filmed with miniatures and dolls).
The old hotel owner Mr. Moustafa will remember the love of his younger self, the birthmarked baker (Saoirse Ronan, in Scots accent) who helped him try to save M. Gustave from the violence, bad manners and prison sentence threatening his happiness.
There are hints of many jaunty earlier Anderson films here (Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Royal Tenenbaums). But here there are balalaikas and bursts of violence, profanity and sexual crudeness that jolt us into remembering the cruelty that M. Gustave is keeping at bay, and into realizing that 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 films turn up in the sets of Potsdam and the Hotel Borse (in Gorelitz, Germany) of this quirkier-than-quirky movie, which Anderson says in the credits was inspired by the Austrian Belle Epoch novels of Stefan Zweig. The Max Ophuls film of Zweig's Letter From an Unknown Woman is one of the great triumphs of sentimental 1940s period-piece production design, just as Budapest is the greatest expression of Anderson's love of ornate buildings, old money, older furniture, tiny models and modish, saturated colors.
"He certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace," Mr. Moustafa eulogizes M. Gustave at one point. That could be turn out to be the deadpan Anderson's epitaph as well, should this Tsar of Surreal Silliness ever be so gauche as to die. Or retire.