"His world had vanished long before he ever entered it," says the narrator of Grand Budapest Hotel. He's talking about the movie's main character, a verbose and fastidious concierge (Ralph Fiennes) named Gustave H, but he might just as easily be talking about Wes Anderson, the movie's director.
Anderson tells a story within a story within a story in Budapest, cutting from 1985 to 1968 to 1932, interrupting himself at regular intervals. At the center is an often-exciting adventure tale (Prison break! Nazis! Hairless Harvey Keitel!) about Gustave and his protégé Zero outrunning a menacing family from whom they've stolen a painting on the eve of World War II.
The Grand Budapest Hotel itself, where the story is told and takes place, is a formerly opulent building that has since grown "too decadent for current tastes." It's a building out of time, a standing anachronism. Anderson uses historically accurate aspect ratios, exposing the Budapest's 1968 shabbiness in unforgiving widescreen, and cramming its sprawling splendor into the tidy Academy square. The poor hotel couldn't stay glamorous long enough to inhabit a movie frame worthy of its beauty.
The movie's self-consciousness is its key ingredient, as spoken dialogue is often completed with a cut to an image bearing the words that were about to be uttered, and the names of key locations are painted onto the walls of the places themselves. You never forget you're watching a movie, which might always be true with an aesthete like Anderson, but here he keeps reminding you. As always, he packs his movie with oddballs and maladjusted sad sacks, but there's a compassion in Budapest that comes from its use of purposeful self-aware anachronism: maybe nobody's born into his own world, maybe the world we think we belong to has always vanished before we get to it.
Come to think of it, the movie opens with a visit to a graveyard, deliberately linking Anderson's trademark nostalgia with death itself. Beyond his middlebrow retro elegance (wallpaper, font, corduroy), Anderson has always tried to achieve a melancholic tone that comes from a feeling of nostalgia. In Grand Budapest Hotel, this feeling expresses itself not only as a look and a tone, but as an idea. The sadness comes from what Anderson, the audience, and the characters all know to be true beneath the surface: that we're longing for a past that never really existed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Grand illusions."