Robert Altman believed that making films was the process of capturing a series of accidental moments. Safe to say he would have baulked at the embroidered work of Wes Anderson, a director who specialises in crafting impossibly detailed, hermetically sealed alternate universes and populating them with richly coloured oddballs who owe little to reality. Such is the control that Anderson exerts over each scrap of clothing, stick of furniture and lick of colour, his fanatically finessed pictures make David Fincher seem slapdash in comparison.
Even by Anderson’s monomaniacal standards, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a supersaturated creation. The titular abode is a colossal purple-pink palace – part cathedral, part gigantic doll’s house, part Overlook Hotel – that perches upon snow-capped mountains high above the fictional Middle-European country of Zubrowka. Overseeing its cavernous lobby, Brobdingnagian dining room and labyrinthine corridors is M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a legendary concierge who conducts his staff with militaristic exactitude while presenting a persona that is debonair and fruity to his aristocratic guests. Gustave delights in servicing every need of the mature ladies who frequent his boudoirs, with his considerable energies turning the titular edifice – already doubling as a health spa-cum-sanatorium – into a baroque brothel.
Then Madame D. (Tilda Swinton under old-age prosthetics) pops her diamond slippers and bequeaths a valuable Renaissance portrait to Gustave. The late dowager’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), is none too pleased to see ‘Boy With Apple’ depart the family, and promptly assigns the thuggish Jopling (Willem Dafoe looking like Boris Karloff spliced with Max Schreck) to retrieve the painting. And so begins a fleet-footed caper as Gustave, flanked by loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), enlists a covert network of concierges who call themselves the Society Of Crossed Keys to aid him in his escape.
Such a description doesn’t begin to communicate the intricacy of Anderson’s eighth feature. Set over three time frames (1985, 1968 and, primarily, 1932), each presented in a different aspect ratio, and employing several narrators who nest together like Russian Dolls, The Grand Budapest Hotel affords support roles and cameos to many of the writerdirector’s extended family (Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum) and a host of new faces (F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Léa Seydoux and Mathieu Almaric).
The movie pastiches film noir, the prison-break movie, horror and more; nods are made to Hitchcock, Lubitsch and Murnau; Anderson’s beloved lateral tracking shots and tableaux are very much in evidence, as is his fondness for creating lead characters as extensions of himself (what is Gustave if not a film director fretting over every inch of his masterwork?); and Alexandre Desplat’s delightful score, hopping between zithers, church organs, harpsichords and music-box tinkles, is knowing and playful.
By rights, this overstuffed, overripe confection should be the cinematic equivalent of gorging on an entire box of the Courtisane au Chocolat that Ronan’s Agatha, an apprentice patissier who is the object of Zero’s affections, concocts with such loving care. The melting pot of European accents should whiff of Euro pudding, even if that pudding is a soufflé fussed over by a three-star Michelin chef. And Anderson’s declaration that he was influenced by the overheated writings of Austrian stylist Stefan Zweig should signal that his new venture will ooze pretension.
Not so. Moving at quite the clip from first decorated frame to last, The Grand Budapest Hotel is undoubtedly Anderson’s finest since The Royal Tenenbaums, and arguably of his career. Placing the action in a Middle Europe that perhaps never existed outside the romantic imaginings of books, the filmmaker hits upon the precise time and place to bring his opulent fancies to life, with the film’s overtly literate roots, fairytale visuals and key theme of storytelling/creation offering the perfect marriage of form and content.
At the picture’s core is a blistering comic performance from Fiennes, here even funnier than he was as the gangland boss in Martin McDonagh’sIn Bruges. By turns chivalrous and devious, polished and profane, his vulgar ejaculations (“She was shaking like a shitting dog”) puncture the film’s high-falutin language and take a serrated blade to the painterly pictures. Anderson, it seems, is aware of just how precious and airless his aesthetic can be, and here pokes fun at it – a running gag sees Gustave’s penchant of quoting poetry rudely interrupted, be it by wailing sirens or the outbreak of war.
The result is a picture of grandeur and intimacy, discipline and brio, and dotted upon the already impressive canvas are flecks of melancholy. These last are lightly applied but inform the entire film, Anderson somehow making us care for people the like of which we’ve never met, living in a world that’s never been but that we’re saddened to see pass. It’s to the director’s immense credit that his most painstakingly detailed, precise work to date is also his funniest, warmest and liveliest, reaching beyond his devotees to take a whopping £152m worldwide at the box office. As Gustave says to the painted corpse of Madame D., “You’re looking so well darling, you really are.”
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