By Preston Wilder
A painting called ‘Boy With Apple’. A letter marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL’. A purple cap reading ‘Lobby Boy’ (I believe it comes in cobalt blue as well). Talk of “scribe’s fever” and another strange ailment, an “absurd little disease” called the Prussian grippe. Mention of the obviously fictional – yet weirdly plausible – Maltese Riviera and Dutch Tanganyika. All these things (and many more) play a part in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the eighth film by director Wes Anderson and, if not the best, certainly the most expansive and ambitious.
Our scene is set in Zubrowka, “once the seat of an empire”, instantly establishing the sense of faded grandeur that underlies the whole movie. The jewel of Zubrowka is the Grand Budapest Hotel – a mountain palazzo that appears to be made of pink sugar – and the soul of the Grand Budapest Hotel is Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a legendary concierge who anticipates the guests’ needs, coddles them, consoles them and frequently takes them to bed, at least if they’re old, rich, blonde and superficial. Gustave is a martinet, a bisexual dandy and “the most liberally perfumed man I have ever encountered” according to Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), the young lobby boy who becomes the great man’s friend and sidekick.
Their adventures, criss-crossing 1930s Europe under the shadow of war, involve an old lady’s will, a priceless painting (the aforementioned ‘Boy With Apple’) and, rather shockingly, acts of grisly violence committed by psycho killer Willem Dafoe (henchman to rich villain Dmitri, played by Adrien Brody). Though mostly played for laughs, the violence seems incongruous in these tasteful surroundings – yet in fact a certain violence has always bubbled beneath the surface of Anderson’s fastidious, almost oppressive comedies. Bill Murray erupted in physical violence against his boorish sons in Rushmore, violent (albeit accidental) death broke the spell in The Darjeeling Limited and there was violence even in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s most purely charming film.
In fact, although Grand Budapest is impeccably elegant and apparently suffused with yearning for the “glimmers of civilisation” of a bygone era (like Downton Abbey, it’s a kind of nostalgia for elitism), it’s not actually genteel, let alone sentimental. Anderson doesn’t live in a bubble; he’s aware of ugliness and rage – that’s what makes his films touching, the way their perfect surfaces rhyme with the hope of anger giving way to forgiveness. Almost the first thing we see is a middle-aged author (Tom Wilkinson) telling the tale of the Grand Budapest Hotel to camera – then breaking off to yell at a little boy who’s shooting at him with a toy pistol. A few moments later, the boy joins him at his desk, where he’s still narrating. “Sorry,” says the boy in a small voice; “It’s all right,” he barks in between telling the story. The whole film is like that, tiny acts of harmony – Edward Norton discharging a childhood debt of gratitude, Gustave apologising to Zero after a nasty outburst – played so discreetly they’re almost invisible. Almost.
There’s something else, as well. The author is telling the story of when he was a young man (Jude Law) and chatted with middle-aged Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who recalled when he was a young man. The film, in other words, is a flashback within a flashback, adding to the sense of something far-off and fragile – which is why the meticulous visuals seem less affected than usual. I wasn’t a massive fan of Anderson’s first two hits (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) where the storybook style seemed to bump up against the real world – but here the illusion is complete, Zubrowka as elusive as Shangri-La and even more delightful.
There isn’t enough space here to describe how amazing the film looks. The production design is a character in its own right: the hotel’s colour-coded rooms, the unfeasibly enormous painting of a mountain valley that watches over the guests at dinner, the arching staircases like the two halves of Tower Bridge in the background. The detail, both visual and narrative, is relentlessly inventive. Saoirse Ronan as Agatha, Zero’s girlfriend, has a birthmark on her cheek in the shape of Mexico. The prison has a moat full of (unseen) crocodiles. Anderson uses comic repetition with a constantly-escalating joke, as in the scene where Ivan (Bill Murray) rounds up the various concierges: one is giving directions, one is tasting soup, one is attempting to resuscitate a half-dead hotel guest – but they all drop what they’re doing to help Gustave, tersely instructing a sidekick to “take over”.
This is a marvellous film, a film full of marvels. But emotionally? Gustave says “I love you” to his old ladies, but some will find Grand Budapest Hotel as hollow and mechanical as his love. Is it just a comic tale of high adventure with beautiful visuals? Even if it were, that would still make it superior to most multiplex fare – but I think it’s (even) more than that. At one point we’re informed that Agatha’s special not just because of her birthmark but because of her “purity” – and the film has its own beguiling purity, full of grace-notes and actual, physical grace (it takes obvious pleasure in Gustave and Zero striding lightly through the hotel, or leaping across a crevasse). It’s a work of art, by an artist at the peak of his powers.
DIRECTED BY Wes Anderson
STARRING Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Edward Norton
US 2014 99 mins