The Grand Budapest Hotel movie poster

A meandering account rather than a review of Wes Anderson’s farcical murder mystery/fugitive on the run/tragic love story, The Grand Budapest Hotel, my observations focus on the objet d’art, references and sumptuous sets. Rather than echo the triumphs and pitfalls of the plot or discuss at great length the, for the most part outstanding, performances, I will take a more individual route through the latest dreamt-up Anderson landscape.

A murder mystery of which neither the culprit, method or reasoning seems particularly important, Wes Anderson’s latest inimitable furor moves the action to an imaginary Bohemia geography of cod-eastern and central European republics, kingdoms and principalities, mixing up a pre-World War II timeline of references from the former Germanic, Czech, Hungarian, Austrian states. Essentially another one of Anderson’s eccentric ensemble pieces, featuring the usual cast members playing idiosyncratic quirky characters, this time decoratively inhabiting a magnificent multi-tiered Belgian cake, whose sugary dusting hides a myriad of sins and greed.

 

Imbued, and inspired by the late Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (and it seems something of a scribing polymath; turning his hand to biography’s, playwriting and journalism), whose work I have to confess has completely passed me by – for all I know he could just exist in the mind of Anderson. Heralded it seems everywhere other than the UK during the first half of the last century, the Viennese qualified philosopher from privileged Jewish stock moved in all the right circles. Cutting a tragic figure, Zweig for all his pacifist talk of unifying continental Europe for the good of humanity, retreated away from his homeland as the miasma of Fascism and especially anti-Semitism grew (though he would always claim his parents Jewish roots were purely ancestral and that they didn’t practice their religion), first moving to London, then the USA, before settling for a very short time in Brazil. A sensitive enough soul, disillusioned and anguished at the way society was going, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942; their last act seemed to indicate an agreed death pact, the couple found laid out holding hands. Zweig could be said to wander the trans-alpine imaginative exteriors and decadent interior of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with both his selfless convictions (including his non-aggressive stance towards oppression and authoritarian rule) and depressive anxieties enacted throughout by the key players. Even the, as we’re at first indulgently led to assume, selfish motivations of the hotels legendary and ever devoted concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (played with aplomb and even admiration by Ralph Fiennes) can seem at times almost heroic (protecting his put upon lobby boy from the menacing authorities) and at the very least humbling as his master and apprentice relationship with the film’s central character, the determined dog-eared lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played in his youth by Tony Revolori, and later in his dotage by F. Murry Abraham) proves. A side issue (or is it!), but I can’t help flag up, whether this was yet again another Anderson mischievous quirk, but Zero is obviously played by someone of a darker South East Asian or Indian extraction in his youth, yet in later life has suddenly paled and looks more like someone from the Israel.

The hotel of the title, viewed over two distinct periods, the earlier incarnation a much-loved decadent seasonal retreat, saccharine and wallowing in fairytale shades of reds, pinks and baby blue, the other a languished, limp pale imitation of its former self, now resembling the emptiness and lonely haunted atmosphere of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining – especially in the dinning hall scenes between the elder, and now owner of the Grand Budapest, Moustafa and the narrator known only as the ‘author’ (played by Jude Law).

The jewel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka’s mountainous domain, the hotel is already stuck in a time warp waltz, even when we are transported back to its so-called golden age; the ruling elite of revolving aging countesses (most of them courted and played like a fiddle by it’s louche concierge) and sundry guests of vulgarity, are literally staring over the precipice of doom, as the air turns stale and ice-y with the impending faux-fascistic iron glove of a ruthless and less empathetic authority, set to gatecrash the charming soiree. So we have an aristocracy, who for the most part as proven by the son and heir-apparent of the film’s murder victim, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis (again Anderson mixing real with fiction, the name a bastardization of the princely house, Thurn und Taxis),know the true value of nothing. This is demonstrated by the cavalier manner in which the conniving Dmitri destroys a real costly and rare erotic Egon Schiele painting after realizing it has replaced the coveted, but rather naff, Boy With Apple portrait from its mounted position above the mantelpiece; stolen, or claimed, of course by the concierge and his lobby boy days earlier. This follows a walk through the lavish if dark burnished opulent study, where if you blink you’ll miss, casually discarded and leaning on the floor one of the great Gustave Klimt’s paintings. Anderson seems to have fixated on Klimt the artist for the look of the brooding spoilt Dmitri, as the Adrian Brody played villain of the piece sports a cartoonish version of the Viennese painters wild untethered hair, and is draped in one of his infamous style komodos. Curiously not only for the most obvious of reasons, the ‘frame’ device runs throughout the film, both with the framing of our dutiable gigolo to the patrons of the Grand Budapest concierge for the murder that lies at the heart of this film – a crime that is never really concluded, with the actual perpetrator, method and outcome remaining obscured -, with the object d’art that is left to him in the countess’s will, and in the technique of which Anderson frames each period of the film – using the three aspect ratios of 1.33, 1.85 and 2.35:1 to give each timeline a distinct panorama.

Action wise The Grand Budapest is closet to The Fantastic Mr.Fox each chase sequence sped up in a cartoonish fashion, each fight scene begging for a speech bubble BIFF! BANG! or POW! to appear above every punch. Even the horrendous violence meted out by Dmitri’s dependable, skull knuckled, henchman – though hit man would be more appropriate – J.G. Jopling, is ludicrously macabre and sometimes more like something out of an Ealing comedy, so ridiculous and over the top are the methods in which victims are knocked off. To his credit, Anderson still maintains an undercurrent of seriousness, even when ramping up the absurd; those violent scenes of door slammed fingers and a severed head still able to shock the audience out of their sedated state. With even the analogy of an enemy not too dissimilar to Mussolini’s, Hitler’s or the various Balkan bully boys that donned the brown and black shirt during the 30s and 40s, made to look like pompous caricatures, even though it soon becomes apparent that ridicule or not their brutalism is all too horrifically real.

 

 

Though almost animated in movement and slapstick, the cast taken from what could have been a quaintly English theatre production, are always gently pushed towards facing universal truths, no matter how fantastical the situation.

For this, Anderson is equally dismissed as he is revered, the often stilted dialogue and reference heavy markers causing some to curse whilst others pontificate his genius. Refraining from the gizmos and technology of the present for the most part, his unconventional love for the handcrafted – in particular his signature style use of miniatures – and enchanting unrealistic effects show a misty-eyed romanticism for the cinema of a golden age, mirrored in his artistic decision to move away from the new world of money and ostentatious surrealism to the old. But as he has successfully achieved in the past, chronicling the aristocratic orders resigned decline, he now also captures the very last days of the established European order – chiming with the great debate of our own times on the striking gap between the ‘haves and have not’s’, it is telling that the periods after both World Wars redistributed wealth, power and even education to the wider population, something that has been reversed in the last twenty years.

 

Apart from, the mediocre by his standards, Moonrise Kingdom Anderson hasn’t disappointed. The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t quite his crowning glory, but should be considered in as one of his best – in your humble author’s opinion alongside The Life Aquatic and Rushmore -, and applauded for at least, apart from his performance In Burges – unearthing Ralph Fiennes hidden talent in slapstick and black comedy.

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