Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a wondrous set of films within films and memories within memories of a world that never quite existed and yet has such a profound resonance with our own. It begins with an earnest young girl making a pilgrimage to the memorial of an un-named writer (Tom Wilkinson) in an unspecified Mittel-Europische town. In a technical flourish we change aspect ratio and film stock - something that the unversed viewer will only subliminally mark as a shift in perspective - to see that writer as a middle-aged man, trying to give a po-faced TV interview about how he wrote his now famous work about The Grand Budapest Hotel. He sits in a perfectly appointed 1970s apartment - every attention paid to the production and costume design - his focus disturbed by his mischievous son shooting a BB gun. Echoes to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and once again, a shift in perspective and memory. We unravel another layer of wrapping paper to this box of magic and go back further to a Central European Soviet setting with that peculiarly gharish and soul-destroying imposition of dun-coloured formica upon the face of our beloved majestic wedding cake ostentatious Grand Budapest Hotel. A now younger writer, played by Jude Law, comes across a mysterious vaguely exotic hotel guest (F Murray Abraham) who invites him to dinner to reminisce about the hotel's hey-day. And at last, we are at the heart of the box of tricks, in the mythical country of Zubrowka, in the mythical hotel that established a kind of aristocratic service that only ever existed in the fictional Browns Hotel of Agatha Christie, or in today in the grand hotels of Venice, like the Danieli or the Gritti, that aspire to give us a sepia-tinted view of the past closer to Downton Abbey than reality.
The lynchpin of the story - the man who gives it its drive, its power, its comedy and its tragedy - is the hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave, played with delicious camp glee by Ralph Fiennes, in his funniest role to date. He squires the hotel's ageing guests, genuinely delighted in their attentions and gifts - a man so far removed from reality and yet utterly self-aware. The mechanics of the plot sees his M. Gustave inherit a priceless (fictional!) piece of art from Madame D., a wonderfully aged up decrepit Tilda Swinton, invoking the ire of her mean son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrienne Brody) and his henchman Jopling (Willem Defoe.) There follows a kind of caper movie as M. Gustave secures his prize, is thrown in jail, and conceives an escape with his fellow cellmate Ludwig (Harvey Keitel) and the legendary Society of the Crossed Keys led by Bill Murray. All this, and I haven't even mentioned Zero yet! Zero is M. Gustave's protege, a refugee from somewhere vague and oriental, with no-one to look after him and no papers, hence the name. And it's the relationship between the camp, extravagant M. Gustave and this earnest, lost little boy that gives the brilliantly shining mirror of a movie its dark backing. For in this fictional world, a fictional SS is about to arrest Zero for having incorrect papers, and when M. Gustave calls them "darling" and explains that they can't POSSIBLY arrest the Bellboy at The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see the clash between the hermetically sealed world of Wes Anderson and the dark realities of European history. We see that behind the indulgently rich detailed creation of hotel liveries and scrumptious pastries in delicate ribbon-tied boxes there is a reality that mean and in antithesis to all the values of heroic friendship that M. Gustave embodies. And suddenly this fairytale world becomes even more tragic because we truly understand how fragile it is, and our minds are drawn back to its fate as a crumbling 1970s Soviet bloc bath-house.
The standard take on Wes Anderson is that he always made these delightfully detailed, beautifully imagined confections whose only failing was their solipsism and similarity. But now, with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, he has finally made an important film, whose profound subject matter lives up to the wonder of the detailed design indulgence. But when you sit back and really think about it, his movies have always contrasted hermetically sealed children's worlds of wonders,and shown the tragedy inherent in confronting reality. They are monuments to the infantile shock at the adult world. RUSHMORE quite literally memorializes a school; THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is about returning home to mother in the shadow of incest, suicide, addiction and death; and MOONRISE KINGDOM uses the metaphor of Noah's flood to show our loss of innocence. Parents are frail, love is desperate and doomed, children are overlooked and hurt. Wes Anderson's worlds may be as scrupulously curated as a beloved Victorian doll's house, but they are dangerous places. The only difference in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is one of scale - the stakes here are higher - it is not just a single child losing innocence, but a whole European civilization caught on the pyre of a fascist war.
What IS knew in GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the continuous, raucous comedy, that is far more sweary and frank than much we have seen before in Wes Anderson's films, as well as the patchwork of overt homages to different film genres and directors. We have the chase scene involving the lawyer Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) that feels like something out of THE THIRD MAN, and the jail break scene that's straight out of THE GREAT ESCAPE, as well as countless other nods to the films of Powell and Pressburger (especially Colonel Blimp). The humour seems to be something taken from an Ealing Studios caper comedy starring Sir Alec Guinness, and overall, the movie has the air of something from wartime British cinema. This together with the deft and deliberate handling of the differing aspect ratios, and the self-conscious use of miniature work and stop-motion animation, coupled with the over-arching theme of memory, mis-memory and world-building, makes THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, par excellence, a self-conscious movie about cinema. It's a film that addresses full-on our need for escapism - what else is it that the hotel sells to its old-maid residents? It's a film that sympathizes with that need, and delights in providing it, but which also knows the limits of that fiction - and that when confronted with violent reality - the confection inevitably melts away.
This is then, for all those reasons, Wes Anderson's most thoughtful, entertaining, technically accomplished and tragic film to date. It's also, for those that care, the best movie of the year to date.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL premiered at Berlin 2014 and is currently on release in the Netherlands, France, Belarus, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel, Macedonia, Austria, the UK, Ireland and the USA. It opens on March 13th in the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan; on March 14th in Canada and Lithuania; on March 20th in Hungary, Singapore and Slovakia; on March 21st in Spain, Norway, Romania and Sweden; on March 27th in Argentina and Denmark; on March 28th in Estonia and Poland; on April 3rd in Brazil and Chile, on April 10th in Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal; on April 11th in Finland; on April 18th in Turkey and in June in Japan.
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