Re:View – ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
I can’t imagine anyone not liking this delicious, whimsically baroque confection, which is like an old hand-tinted postcard found between the pages of a library book of a holiday once taken by a forgotten relative.
The hotel in question is a lovingly rendered wedding cake of an edifice somewhere in mittel-Europe before the Second World War. It sits between the Alps and villages of the fictitious Zubrowka, part-Polish, part-Hungarian, part-German. A title card announces that Wes Anderson based his tale on the writings of Stefan Zweig, but it feels closer to Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’.
By the 1970’s the hotel has fallen on hard times, as indicated by the horrible orange decor and the warning signs on everything. Here, a young writer (Jude Law) is befriended by Zero (F Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how he came to inherit the hotel from the original, legendary concierge – and so we are whisked back to the hotel’s heyday. Ralph Fiennes is on delirious form here as Monsieur Gustave, unctuous, imperious, camp, exacting, and shockingly sweary. It’s a gem of a performance that lights the whole film, and for once, Wes Anderson’s weak spot – blunt dialogue – has been nicely sharpened.
M Gustave has taken Zero under his wing as a lobby boy – the odd Americanisms jar slightly for the location, but no matter – and requires his help. Madame D (Toilda Swinton) has died, leaving him a priceless painting which the family, headed by Adrien Brody, is determined to keep. He hires ludicrous proto-Nazi Willem Dafoe to get it back, and with the clockwork motor of a Bertie Wooster plot fully wound, the fun begins. With lawyer Jeff Goldblum and Chief of Police Edward Norton acting as a neutral zone between M Gustave, Zero, his pastry chef girlfriend and the forces of old-Europe evil, the battle of wills (and a will) involves chases – rendered by models rather than CGI – deceptions, trains, ski lifts, a jailbreak and the occasional shock of violence. All we lack here is someone impersonating a general.
I love the idea that the police know they can track M Gustave by his cologne (‘Lair De Panache’), and that a guard won’t check a cake for a file because it’s simply too pretty to ruin. But beneath the institutional delights of the hotel, its staff and their stories is a melancholic truth; that ultimately it’s the greater forces, the reclassification of borders, the approaching war and the march of time that will sort them all out. Anderson has long been fascinated by the end of happier times, and here he has found a perfect fit with the nostalgia for a Europe now largely lost. (But not entirely, if you’ve been to parts of Austria, Germany Switzerland or Poland, where these streets and hotels still exist).
While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, every frame of the film is filled with humorous asides created simply for your delight. Anderson used to homage Hal Ashby; now he’s homaging Peter Greenaway, but with such a lightness of touch that the whole film feels one beat away from turning into an operetta, bouncing along on Alexandre Desplat’s balalaika score. I was also reminded of the grand hotel in Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, which had the same musical quality.
It’s not surprising that one of the film’s central images is of a very fancy cake; it will give you the same rich sense of pleasure. I carried on smiling for hours after.