As an avid fan of director Wes Anderson, I can’t promise you a wholly unbiased review of his latest début, The Grand Budapest Hotel. To explain, I’ll first paint you a picture. I’m stood, in the marbled, Art Deco lobby of a Cinema-Theatre that appears as if it has been built up around me straight out of the 1930’s. Ivory, cobalt and crimson begins the ritualistic journey into that fictional immersion you look for when faced with a 21 metre wide screen and a pitch-black room. Gold aggregates everywhere there is space for embellishment and a large, domed light beams from a sculpted, plaster base above our heads. The employees are friendly – eager to get the cinema-goers into the screen room. We’ve already booked, so, as a vest-clad manifestation of human optimism presses two printed, card tickets into my hand (not the flimsy, paper ones you get from somewhere like The Odeon) I start to get excitedly impatient. People are bustling a little, their shoes clapping against the floor like peremptory applause and I, excitedly looking forward to the film, begin to slowly remember what Christmas used to feel like. Perhaps it’s Anderson’s hardly subtle use of gaudy colour schemes, puppet-show props and toy-figurine costumes, his linear camera angles and his frank, yet suave, characters, but the inner child in me, and the inner artist, begin to resign that nonchalant, public veil in favour of shining eyes and wonder at what lies before me.
The film features around this remote yet absurdly extravagant hotel that, over the years, has decayed into a monument of all the opulence of the early 30’s, before war struck a fictional, if familiar European country. As I sat there, cocooned in the vermilion velvet of the old fashioned cinema seat, the first thing that struck me as the film began was the intricacy of the narrative layers. The story begins with our first narrator, a young girl visiting the grave of her hero, a mysterious writer only known as ‘the Author’. This scene is a red herring for the true plot of the movie, however, and we come to realise this as she begins reading the first chapter of the book she cradles in her arms, in memoriam to the deceased. We are sucked into the pages of the book where we meet our second narrator, an aspiring writer played by Jude Law, several decades after the central events of the film and several decades before the present day. His story takes place during a stay in The Grand Budapest Hotel itself, and is about an encounter he has there. The man he encounters is, in fact, the owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa. Mr Moustafa is perfectly in place at the hotel, as if he has aged and suffered along with the institution, as if their stories are forever tied. He is quietly eccentric, dressed in faded velvet, a shadow of his former self. He even continues to wear a purple blazer, reminiscent of the loud uniforms worn by the staff of the hotel in his youth. Appropriately, he reveals himself to be our third story teller, and a central component to the history of the hotel.
As the author and Zero dine together, we view them side-on, as if in our own personal theatre box at the edge of their table. The audience are made to feel that by engaging in the storytelling that ensues at such a close proximity, as if Zubrowka – the fictional nation, and all of its inhabitants and history, truly exist. What’s more, this storytelling then leads us onto another level of narration, where the story of Zero Moustafa as a teenager, and more importantly, his mentor, Monsieur Gustave, is told. Monsieur Gustave is a morally dubious, overbearing, pompous and yet truly wonderful character. Throughout the film we become familiar with his mannerisms; his favoured perfume, ‘L’air de panache’, as puissant as Gustave’s character, his rational, moral lessons quickly contradicted by a shameless act of hypocrisy, his unfaltering yet blaringly superficial charm, his exquisitely timed profanities. Brilliantly, Anderson makes it so that Monsieur Gustave, flawlessly played by Ralph Fiennes, is just that: charming. Be it when he’s flirting with women far too old for him, or when he’s breaking out of a gulag with members of a prison gang he has made polite acquaintance with, there’s something oddly enchanting about this legendary character. In fact, something about the reverie that surrounds the elusive M.Gustave allows a greater insight into our narrator, Zero, and his idolisation of the only true role model he ever had. It is fair to say that together, Monsieur Gustave and his young ward make quite the convincing duo.
As in another of Anderson’s eccentric masterpieces, Moonrise Kingdom, Edward Norton again plays a spectacular, if understated character. However, instead of playing a flustered if well-meaning mentor in the form of a boy scout leader, Norton turns the tables and plays ‘Henckels’, the overseer of a supposedly fictional fascist military group. The extraordinary blatancy of Anderson’s historical references, juxtaposed with Norton’s convincingly amiable character, contribute to the mosaic that is this dazzlingly absurd farce of a story. These less-than-obscure historical references come in the form of familiar, knee-length, grey uniforms and ‘ZZ’ symbols reminiscent of the Nazi SS. Similarly, the way they take over the hotel itself and consistently hassle Zero, our other hero, for his travel papers; make it clear that a far darker and greater political clockwork system is at play in the toy-town world of Zubrowska. With references to both the First World War and Second World War throughout the film, Anderson presents a new, honest, yet safely distant perspective on the events of a very dark period in the 20th century.
The astounding level of particularity with every single visual detail of the film, and the meticulous timing and execution of dialogue, gives the film Anderson’s superfluous children’s book style. It is as if his whole fictional universe has poured forth from the brilliant mind of an incredibly intelligent 8 year old boy, having been given an exponential sketchpad and a new set of crayolas. While Anderson notoriously colours outside of the lines of film making etiquette, he does so both elaborately and flawlessly, redefining the constraints of traditional film. I cannot recommend this film more highly, and it was both a pleasure and a tragedy to walk through the doors of the spectacular Tyneside cinema into the streets of Newcastle with that experience of a film fresh in my mind.