Wes Anderson seems like the sort of person who, in childhood, was far more interested in analogue and organic things than digital technology. The first thing that may strike viewers as they watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, is the visual language that Anderson has commands here and all of his previous films. Many detractors have dismissed his films as all style and no substance, as being essentially airless, mannered self-indulgences. While I disagree with this argument anyway, it is surely hard not to appreciate this style which has been beautifully adapted to this story. There are beautiful interior designs, flat widescreen compositions, ironic whip pans, colour coordinated outfits and even some painted backdrops that bring to the fore the artifice of Anderson’s technique, a sense of winding up an intricate toy of some sort, a contraption, albeit one brimming with life and depth.
The story told by multiple narrators as we enter a flashback within a flashback, takes place in the fictional country of Zubrowka and concerns the unlikely duo of hotel concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and new lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) dealing with the fallout of the suspicious death of one of Gustave’s aged lovers Madame D (Tilda Swinton), whose will lends a valuable artwork into the possession of Gustave, but whose death is pinned on the flamboyant concierge by the deceased woman’s fascistic son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). The story of the film takes place whilst war is breaking out in the background as Europe enters a period of great change, away from the pomp and arcane rituals of the aristocracy that the Grand Budapest Hotel caters to, and into a crueler, starker Europe with the rise of fascist regimes. The story that follows is an entertaining and very funny romp, with familiar actors appearing in this tale as priests, convicts, SS troopers, bakeries with daring breakouts, chases, and disguises all serve to bring to life questions of the importance of art. We also feel the deep emotional currents hidden by illusory surfaces, which serves as an apt description for Anderson’s films.
The film is never dour or miserable but its hilarious surface does contain an impressively confident take on serious matters, without losing its sense of fun or its deliciously stylised structure. Its heart belongs to Gustave who is played with exquisite charm and vanity by Ralph Fiennes, who has perhaps given greater performances but none more loveable than this one. His arrogance and prissiness are exploited to comic effect by Fiennes, but there is an inner steel to the character particularly when protecting young Zero, that makes him such a joy to behold. Indeed Gustave’s character is integral to the film’s approach to the world of 1930s Europe, as his courtly bearing showcase an affectionate celebration of a bygone era of civilised politeness and aristocratic speech, even when under duress. Whilst this may make the film sound elitist towards common folk, this would be overlooking the heavy implications that Gustave’s background is not so different from the humble Zero, an immigrant outsider whose brown skin creates conflict with the fascists in the film. If ever there was a character of whom Wes Anderson felt a kindred bond to, it would be Gustave with his fastidious perfectionism when it comes to his beloved hotel and the way it runs, which echoes Anderson’s own attention to detail on his film sets.
Anderson has said that although the film is a comedy, he intended it to be about barbarism as a cloud hangs over the Europe, and indeed as mentioned before the archaic nobility with which Gustave and Zero, who celebrate the finer things in life such as romantic poetry, wine and a cologne called L’Air de Panache, are caught in a dialectic struggle with this barbarism. Tellingly Dmitri’s first words in the film are calling Gustave a “fucking faggot” whilst he angrily smashes a painting in another. Willem Dafoe is also creepy presence as Jopling, a leather-jacket wearing psychopath whose violence leads to some startlingly gruesome scenes.
Undoubtedly Dmitri would not enjoy this film with its visual flair and wonderfully odd music. Indeed the film has few flaws, with perhaps the romantic sub-plot between Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) seeming excessively whimsical. But given the overall strength of the film, I suspect, unlike the eponymous hotel, this film will age well and more viewers will appreciate it as a moving, nostalgic story that ponders the irresistible progression of time, even while joyfully celebrating the cultural delights that resist it.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), directed by Wes Anderson, is released in the UK by 20th Century Fox International, Cert 15