I have to admit that if I had to pick one director as my spirit animal then I’d probably go for Wes Anderson. That’s not to say that I, hands down, consider him the best director of all time (we all know his had his fair share of misfires) but, out of everyone, it is his cinematic vision that always has the ability to make my heart leap with joy. I mean I still smile to myself when I remember the gorgeous stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr Fox. He also happens to be a very divisive director and I often find myself having to justify my Anderson appreciation to one of my closest friends who often dismisses him as hipster pretentiousness. This is the same friend who has also spent years trying to convince me that her love of Ralph Fiennes is anything other than madness. To her dismay, I’ve never really got over his insistence on pronouncing his name “Rafe” or been able to forgive him for Maid in Manhattan. However, after watching his recent films, Coriolanusand Skyfall, I found myself coming round to her way of thinking (although his time as Magwitch in Great Expectations proved to be unintentionally hilarious – I mean that death scene) and if any man could prove her to be correct it’s Anderson.
For his eighth outing, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson is moving into the world of murder mystery and slapstick crime caper a la The Pink Panther. Taking inspiration from Austrian author Stefan Zweig, Anderson introduces us to the fictional European country of Zubrowka, home of the eponymous hotel. We experience the hotel through multiple timelines starting with the celebrated author (Tom Wilkinson) who remembers his meeting with the hotel’s owner (Abraham F. Murray) in the 1970s. The young author (Jude Law) inquires into how the mysterious Zero Moustafa took possession of the hotel and why, if he as rich as people say he is, he insists on sleeping in cramped employee quarters. Taking us even deeper, Moustafa reminisces about his time as lobby boy working for the much loved concierge M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
As we’ve come to expect from Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a pastel coloured, visual treat. With his beautifully imagined snowy vistas of Middle Europe, watching Anderson’s latest film is like indulging in a fucking huge ice cream sundae without feeling sick. Sitting on top of it all is Anderson’s crowning glory, The Grand Budapest Hotel itself: sitting atop this ice-cream mountain looking like the world’s best wedding cake.
Whilst a selection of the interior shots was filmed on location at an old department store in Germany, the wide shots of the hotel were gained thanks to a scale model. Like Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, this gives the film a greater sense of nostalgia and feels as though we’re all watching over the residents of a really intricate dollhouse. Let’s be honest though, when you watch a Wes Anderson film you are watching an adult child playing with the biggest toy set that he can get his hands on. He has such a deep-seated presence within his own film that everything comes together precisely and it’s always a joy to behold. Take those brief moments of animation which have a wonderful homely feel to them and sort of make it feel like Oliver Postgate got creative in a candy store. I could easily gush about how fucking beautiful this film is for hours because it’s just fantastic.
Although, there is a lot more to The Grand Budapest Hotel than the sweet candy coating: the story packs an emotional and dramatic punch. We are dealing with a Europe underneath the gathering storm clouds of invading Communism. The growing presence of the grey Nazi-like force with their “ZZ” emblazoned uniforms increases as the film progresses and is just one of Anderson’s reminders that life isn’t just a soft pastel joyous affair. Gustave himself is a contrast of perceived perfection whilst hiding his secret life as a gold-digging paramour to the hotel’s elderly and wealthy women. Gustave’s illicit affairs come back to haunt him after his greatest conquest (played by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) dies suddenly and leaves him a priceless painting. This sets in motion a plot filled with art theft, murder, love, prison breaks, clandestine meetings, military occupation and cake. It is a dark tale that whilst full of horrors and dangers is tinged with enough optimism that I left the cinema feeling a great serenity wash over me. Quite simply, The Grand Budapest Hotel is your typical Wes Anderson controlled mayhem in which even the moments of violence and danger are played out with polite society in mind: take for example the gunfight taking place towards the end of the film.
Any of you out there playing Wes Anderson Bingo or whatever will no doubt be overjoyed to discover that, added to The Grand Budapest Hotel’s already fairly full list of the director’s staples, the film contains a whole host of Anderson collaborators. The film offers brief appearances from regulars, likes Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Willem Defoe, as well as some from the newer members of his film family, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and Adrien Brody. Some of these are fleeting and used primarily to keep to long standing tradition but, as with all customs, there is some comfort to be found in their presence.
It also helps that the supporting characters are horribly (or fantastically I suppose) overshadowed by the central figure of Gustave, played to great effect by Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes hasn’t pulled off this great a comic turn since his part in 2008’s black comedy In Bruges. Fiennes clearly relishes the challenge of the concierge’s rapid-fire dialogue that flawlessly moves between sophisticated, smarmy and obscene. It is the definition of a pitch-perfect performance and everything is perfectly executed. With his stiff and angular mannerisms, his straight back and perfectly groomed facial hair, M. Gustave is the perfect figurine to roam through Anderson’s dollhouse.
Whilst watching, there never comes a moment when you are worried that Anderson has lost control of his film. Everything is planned out with utter precision and attention to detail. All parts of the films are planned out to aid the storytelling and create a fully imagined world full of 3-dimensional characters. It may seem like a small thing but Anderson even goes so far as to differentiate between the three different timelines by utilising three different aspect ratios: 1.33, 1.85, and 2.35:1 respectively. Frankly, it’s brilliant and rather exciting film making. Whatever your thoughts on his style, there can be no denying that Anderson is a director who knows how to use his camera, particularly for comic effect. His preference for theatrical framing devices and Kubrick-esque love for symmetry is as much on show here as it ever is. His signature long tracking shots and comic zooms (often immediately panned straight back) are present throughout. Although, you never get the feeling that these things are simply par for the course because everything has a purpose. There is no aspect of The Grand Budapest Hotel that feels redundant.
I’ll be honest with you, I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel from the moment I saw the opening titles and that oh-so-Anderson font (despite the fact that he once again avoided his classic Futura). I went to see this with a friend who had little experience of Anderson’s films so I was worried my over enthusiasm would oversell it. However, my fears were soon forgotten: this is by far Anderson’s most accessible and funniest film in years. It also happens to be the most Wes Anderson film that the director has made for a long time.