The year is 1932. Time is rolling from the refined excess of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to a colder, stonier aesthetic. War is in the air, like the tang of winter. The green and rugged countries of Eastern Europe are trapped between their neighbors, songbirds flanked by hawks.
Yet there are places where the past lives on in magnificent wine-entrée pairings and delicate chocolates on pillows, where crystal glints and gilding gleams and everything is exactly the way it was, is and should be. The Grand Budapest Hotel, located high in the mountains of Zubrowka, is still a palace. And its concierge is its king.
The buck—or at least the Zubrowkan ruble—stops with Monsieur Gustave H. He's in charge of everything that happens within the Budapest's candy-pink walls, from the airiness of the dessert meringue to the cleanliness of the ashtrays. He makes the guests feel like well-heeled nobles (which, in fact, most of them are), and he caters to their every need, want and whim, particularly if they're old, rich, insecure and love-hungry widows. Yes, Monsieur Gustave will become their most intimate confidant and serve them (ahem) personally.
But as Europe rumbles ever closer to war, Gustave learns that one of the hotel's most loyal and loaded guests, Madame D., has died in her home a train ride away. "I must go to her," he tells his faithful lobby boy, Zero. And the two speed off to pay their last respects to the high-haired dowager.
"Honestly, you look better than you have in years," Gustave H. sincerely tells the corpse of Madame D. "You look alive."
But when Madame's will is read, it's her relatives who become lively. The bulk of the estate goes to her conniving, mustachioed son, Dmitri. And other members of the family are to receive various gifts. But as an addendum, Madame D. willed her priceless portrait "Boy With Apple" to none other than the Budapest's Monsieur. And as Gustave confides in Zero, the painting is the estate's real treasure. "The rest of this s‑‑‑ is just worthless junk."
Dmitri won't give up "Boy With Apple" without a fight, though. Indeed, Dmitri won't give it up without, perhaps, a murder or two.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a love story of sorts—not so much of Gustave's love for Madame D. and his other moneyed guests, nor even of Zero and his betrothed, Agatha, the pastry chef with a birthmark of Mexico on her cheek. It's a love story for beautiful things gone, a gentler time that has disappeared. And it's embodied, of course, by the hotel itself.
Gustave and Zero both have a deep affection for the grand old lady. When Gustave finds himself imprisoned, he writes letters to the staff, insisting that they hold to his high standards as if he was standing over them with a horsewhip. And Zero, when asked why he'd want to become a lobby boy, says, "Who wouldn't?" It is, after all, The Grand Budapest. Zero loves the place so much, in fact, that he comes to own it, and it's through his decades-old reminisces (told to a writer staying in a much less grand Budapest in 1968) that we learn of his and Gustave's story.
This nostalgia isn't, in itself, positive. But it does speak to both of these characters' desires to hold on to something they feel is worth preserving—something good, something that should not be lost as Zubrowka is trampled underneath the iron boots of its neighbors. And it's through this shared bond that the two form a deep (if quirky) friendship. Zero goes to great lengths to help and safeguard Gustave, and Gustave is willing to risk his life for Zero. When police board a train, find Zero's papers out of order and demand he get off—and who knows how that'll end—the normally cool Gustave grows enraged. "Unhand my lobby boy!" he shouts.
Throughout the narrative, then, we see Zero, Gustave and Agatha display courage, gumption, resourcefulness and, at times, compassion (though, as we shall see, their manifestation can be a bit questionable).
When Madame D. leaves The Grand Budapest, she asks Gustave to light a candle for her in the sacristy of Santa Maria. (Gustave delegates the task to Zero.) Later, a bevy of friendly monks help Gustave and Zero unfurl a mystery. Both are given monks' robes by way of disguise, and they meet a crucial source in the confines of a confessional booth. (A murderous villain also wears monks' robes and carries incense.) Bibles are seen and sworn upon.
"I go to bed with all my friends," Gustave says. And while that's not strictly true (his relationship with Zero seems to stay platonic), the concierge's sexual predilections do fall on the indiscriminate side of the line. As suggested above, Gustave sleeps with most of the wealthy, blonde, older women who come to the hotel, comparing them to cheaper cuts of meat, which he happens to like. We briefly see him in bed with a bare-breasted guest, reading poetry. Another guest appears to perform oral sex on him. (Her head covers his privates.)
But the effeminate concierge is also dubbed a "fruit" and worse by Dmitri, and when he's called a "straight fellow" by prisoners while in jail, Gustave quips, "Well, I've never been accused of that before."
Gustave flirts with Zero's fiancée while "interviewing" her for the position of Zero's wife—an act that infuriates the jealous Zero. Zero proposes to Agatha in a movie house. She says yes, and the two begin making out furiously and stripping off each other's clothes. Later, we see Agatha in bed in a nightie, with Zero standing nearby—the suggestion being that the two regularly sleep together. (They do end up getting married, with Gustave officiating.)
We see an obscene painting of two nude women engaged in sexual activity. Prisoners have walls festooned with black-and-white photos of naked women. We see part of a large man's backside as he's being showered down. There's a line about squandering money on "whores."
Dmitri employs an assassin named Jopling who kills several people. One woman is killed by having her head lopped off. (We don't see the murder, but her head is delivered to the police station—pulled out of the encasing basket by the hair.) A man has his fingers chopped off. (We see them fall to the ground.)
We learn Zero's family was executed. Someone dies from strychnine poisoning. One man is shot, and blood dots his white robe. Another is smashed in the face with a rifle butt. Another plummets from an incredible height. A huge (mostly comical) shootout takes place in the hotel—a confrontation that leave two people hanging from a balcony. A cat is thrown out a window—to be seen splayed out on the pavement below.
Zero and Gustave are accosted on the train. (We see bodies being slammed into walls.) In prison, Gustave's face is covered in bruises, welts and cuts. An escaping prisoner kills five guards before he's killed. (All lay in pools of blood.)
Crude or Profane Language
A dozen f-words, five s-words and almost every other bad word you shouldn't be able to think of, including "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑," "f‑ggot," "pr‑‑k" and "bloody." God's name is misused at least 10 times, more than half the time with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Folks drink wine, champagne and hard liquor. Gustave orders Zero to bring some of the "good stuff" from the hotel so they won't need to drink the "cat p‑‑‑" they serve on the train. Jopling often takes swigs from a flask. Gustave smokes a cigarette.
Other Negative Elements
Gustave twice runs away from the authorities. Circumstances compel him to prematurely steal "Boy With Apple," and he contemplates selling the piece on the black market. When Gustave is wrongly imprisoned, Zero and Agatha help him and some other (and quite rightly imprisoned) associates break out, packing digging tools into bakery confections.
Wes Anderson has a style all his own, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the most Andersonesque of Anderson's work. An homage of sorts to Edwardian-era sitting-room murder mysteries (think Agatha Christie), this dollhouse dramedy may well prove to be the director's most distinctive work.
There's a delicate and wistful whimsy—a strange innocence—to most of Anderson's films. It's like he's still playing make-believe in his bedroom, and he's inviting us to come and share his quirky world for a while. But while his movies can feel so childlike in their storytelling, their content is anything but.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in an era straddling a decadent past and a brutal future, and both that decadence and brutality lurk in every carefully curated corner here. Most of the violence is intended to be comical … except when it's meant to feel horribly realistic and almost profane. It's done intentionally by the director, I think, to shock us and mar this idealized world he's created. Beauty, he seems to want to tell us, is a fleeting thing. And the same may apply to the graphic sexual allusions as they relate to love.
These scenes, like all of Anderson's, are flecked with an almost desperate pathos that looms behind the whimsy as he suggests that all good things do indeed end. The movie's philosophy is summed up smartly (if obscenely) by Gustave himself, talking to Zero on the train:
"You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant … oh, f‑‑‑ it."