DIR. Wes Anderson. STARRING: Pretty much everyone, ever. Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Mathieu Amalric, other people.
Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste – frequently kitsch, long and frustratingly quirky – you are either a devoted fan, or perpetually bemused.
The Grand Budapest Hotel situates itself very comfortably amongst Anderson’s oeuvre and will no doubt be equally divisive. But for those of you whom are fans of the indulgent director’s sense of spectacle and folly are in for a TREAT.
In the prelude to the prelude, a young girl pays respects to the statue of a renowned author, whom we are then introduced to in living form as Tom Wilkinson, and then again in his younger self as Jude Law. The ever-complex structure that is Anderson’s storytelling is in full swing here, and the story within a story (within a story?) allows for nostalgia and hyperbole to manifest in seductive form. Jude Law meets Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori) once the hotel is well past its peak and resembles The Shining in its eerie sparseness of guests and gaudy decor. It is through the eyes of Moustafa as told by the Author that we meet the indomitable and utterly fantastic Gustave H; a man as absurd as he is debonair.
Rewind to the 1930s and to the hotel’s golden era with its luxuriously pastel exterior and opulent interiors reflective of the Belle Epoque. And master of it all is Ralph Fiennes whom looks like he’s having the time of his life as cavorting concierge Gustave. Moustachioed, meticulous and occasionally potty-mouthed, he careens about the hotel with authority, swagger and purpose. He is the life and soul of the hotel, servicing his guests in more ways than one – with particular interest in the elder, richer clientele (“when you’re young it’s all fillet steak, and then you have to move on to cheaper cuts”, Gustave says of his taste for vintage women, in brilliantly cutting style). He adopts Moustafa, a teenage lobby boy orphaned by war as his protégé and proceeds to instruct him on being the perfect concierge – anticipating needs, being at once invisible and ever available and able to fulfill any task at the drop of a hat.
The real plot begins with a freakishly aged Tilda Swinton as Madame D (“dynamite in the sack”), who turns out to be Gustave’s lover and upon her death bestows him with ‘Boy with Apple’ a prized painting among her eccentric money-grabbing family, at the centre of whom is her sinister son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). After being accused of her murder, Gustave, employing the help of Moustafa, sets out to clear his name. So begins the action/heist element of Grand Budapest, replete with art theft, a prison escape, cable-car rides, a sledge-chase, a farcical shoot-out and a flying cat.
It is a buddy-caper film and period drama rolled into one, though genre is almost pointless to label a Wes Anderson film.
His directorial style is arguably a genre all by itself. Anderson after all is an unbridled, and unrepentant aesthete who revels in that which is sumptuous and styled to perfection.
One just has to look at the flawless intricacy of the pastries Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) bakes, replete with individual wrapping and a bow; or the vividly purple suits worn by Gustave, precisely tailored and as straight as the lines in which Anderson’s camera moves. Every frame is tinged with his unique perspective and eye for detail.
Reminiscent of Georges Melies in its technical wizardry and elaborate set constructions, Anderson never shies away from artifice and the scenery often looks more picture-postcard than real. A choice no doubt intentional. A critique often leveled at the director is that his aesthetic is too calculated, fussy and pristine. Everything is exacting and no room is left for spontaneity. But I would argue that this in fact channels the operation of a hotel immeasurably. Hotels are strange liminal spaces, where one often goes to escape reality and to exchange the quotidian with grandeur and excess. There are people to cater to every need, beds flawlessly made and endless, uncluttered corridors. It is a calculated, seamless and mechanical operation. Both the hotel and Anderson’s direction.
And the richness of dialogue, scenery and detail seems testament to Anderson’s love for, and mourning, of the decadent fin-de-siecle period. This is after all a film lamenting the decline of civilisation; for all its wit and joviality, it is laced with startling violence – and sadness. There are equal parts magic and melancholy.
Every facet of this film is one drenched in resplendence. The musical score composed by Alexandre Desplat is quaint, ethereal and charming with plinking piano notes and playful strumming. There are clear folk music influences – said to be Russian – but with an air of percussive exoticism. It feels other-worldly, opulent and slightly melancholic for a bygone era where Viennese waltzing was something everyone knew how to do; the score thus complements the elegiac and idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film perfectly.
The costuming is also impeccable, from the aforementioned violet concierge suits to the expertly groomed moustaches. Lea Seydoux’s French maid’s outfit, Willem Dafoe’s floor-length leather trench and Tilda Swinton’s fur-lined, red velveteen coat are particular highlights among a plethora of well-dressed characters.
And finally the performances are a treasure trove of parody, absurdity and perfect comic-timing. Newcomer Tony Revolori holds his own magnificently against Ralph Fiennes, with whom he shares most of his screen time. It would be easy to disappear into the background when matched with Fiennes’ hysterical, career curve-balling performance, but the young Moustafa is likeable, sympathetic and very watchable, especially when chastising Gustave for flirting with his fiancée Agatha.
There are more cameos than you can shake a stick at, with Anderson’s cohort of returning actors growing larger. You could argue that such small roles given to such big talent is a waste, and perhaps a distraction (see Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave for how NOT to cast a star in a film), however Anderson is very wise in his casting and if anything the variety of cameos add to magic and chaos of the film. Particularly notable are Edward Norton as a bumbling police officer channelling Inspector Clouseau, Harvey Keitel as the tattooed convict and fellow prison escapee and a quite frankly terrifying Willem Dafoe as Dmitri’s hitman of sort. That is of course, not to take away from the several other exquisitely attuned performances throughout the film, with every actor immersing themselves in the characters and the world it’s easy to forget whom they are. Yes Tilda, I’m looking at you.
Of course, the star of the show is the surprisingly uproarious Mr. Fiennes. It’s rare to see him in a comic role, with his CV rather generous with its uber-villains, tortured lovers and po-faced parts. Of course, In Bruges and Skyfall, if not just his immense talent, proved he could handle deadpan humour. But I wonder if anyone knew he could do it so well. He is a sheer delight to watch in action, and delivers each with line with eloquence, panache and conviction, even when – or especially when – peppered with ‘darlings’. Every gesture, curled lip or disgruntled expression is a wonder to behold and quite frankly watching Ralph Fiennes do high-camp will never fail to be entertaining.
Some have labelled The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and I would be inclined to agree. This is a film as elaborate, delicious and multi-layered as the cakes Agatha slaves over at Mendl’s and as exhilarating as the ridiculous sledge-chase that initiates a fabulous confrontation between Fiennes and Dafoe. The immaculate facade that is Zubrowska, or the hotel itself may create a fictional world, but it is not an inaccessible one. For all the callousness and greed, there is kindness and tenderness and perhaps most of all beauty.
Check in, stay awhile and indulge in unadulterated chaotic splendour.