Having seven feature films to his name, director Wes Anderson is seen by some as a filmmaking God, a modern day auteur. You watch one of his films and you instantly know it’s Anderson behind the camera. There are others who would say that his films are a load of hot air, that there is very little substance underneath the inventive visuals and offbeat humour. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. If you had asked me after seeing The Darjeeling Limited, I would have said that, while the film was a brilliantly eccentric watch, everything about it, the humour, the visuals, the shifts in tone, were nowhere near in the same league as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Then Fantastic Mr. Fox came along; not just, for me, Anderson’s best film, but the best family film and easily one of the best films of this century (that’s in no way an exaggeration). Since then, Anderson has been on top form, with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom raising the bar both in production design, performances (Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, especially) and script writing (the film swerves wildly between zany comedy and drama, and really shouldn’t work, but somehow does).
If you thought Anderson’s previous films were crammed with never before seen cinematography and gags, then his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, sees the director firing on all cylinders. So many frames feel straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film, but if Kubrick concentrated on meticulous, striking images, less concerned about the beating hearts of his characters, then Anderson gets the balance just right.
When we first see the hotel of the title, during the sixties, it has been forgotten, falling apart. Set in the fictional Zubrowska, both fascism and communism have literally changed the country’s landscape, shown in how the hotel is almost empty, the decor pale and dull. This all changes when Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) narrates how the hotel wound up this way. Going back to the thirties, the camera deliberately takes its time as it glides across production designer Adam Stockhausen’s extravagant interiors, filled with eye-catching colours (the colour pink almost everywhere); everything from the doors, the windows, the staff uniforms, even the lifts, are lavishly made.
There is no consistent visual style to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson picking and choosing from various genres. Rooftops and landscapes that resemble the Georges Méliès 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon; Willem Dafoe chasing Jeff Goldblum through the dark corridors of an art gallery is a scene straight out of a film noir; a prison escape, tunneling underground and tip-toeing around the guards as they sleep, is a nod and a wink to every jailbreak film ever made.
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s gorgeous-looking cinematography is one reason to see the film, the performances throughout are just as attention grabbing. Ralph Fiennes has been consistently good in everything he has appeared in, yet he has not had a part that has given him much to do since Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Here, as the equally debonair and foul-mouthed Monsieur Gustave, Fiennes steals the show. You forget how gifted Fiennes is, his comic timing up there with the best comedy actors. One minute he is charming, a gentleman, the next he delivers a deadpan jibe, turning the air blue with every other word.
Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori make a fantastic double-act, Revolori playing the hotel’s newest lobby boy, Zero, who Gustave takes under his wing. While Fiennes clowns around, Revolori is straight-faced, unblinking, his words slow and monotone. Revolori is the Ernie Wise to Fiennes’s Eric Morecambe.
Just as in Anderson’s previous films, half the fun of The Grand Budapest Hotel is spotting another cameo from one of the director’s regulars. Tilda Swinton, as Gustave’s aging lover, Madame D., constantly makes you laugh in her brief scenes, hidden under a heap of make-up. Willem Dafoe, who can play villains on autopilot, is clearly having a hell of a lot of fun as Adrien Brody’s henchman.
The one thing that stops The Grand Budapest Hotel being Anderson’s best film is the last ten-to-fifteen minutes. We know things are going to end badly; we still don’t know how the hotel ended up being a ruin. Yet Anderson decides to rush his finale, wrap things up far too quickly. The whole film whizzes by at a hurtling pace, but the closing minutes oddly go up a gear. This could have been the director’s most thoughtful film: Europe’s twentieth century history done Wes Anderson-style. While the ending doesn’t exactly bring the train off the tracks, you get the sense that there should have been more of an impact here. Sadly it is far too heavy handed, nothing like the subtlety of Moonrise Kingdom.
This isn’t to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a disappointment, it’s anything but. It could have been Anderson’s very best, instead of being one of his best. Those who have never understood Anderson, who would rather see the latest mainstream Hollywood comedy, won’t be convinced by his newest offering. Yet for those who the mention of Rushmore or Fantastic Mr. Fox brings a smile to their face, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson at the height of his filmmaking powers.
4 out of 5