The Grand Budapest Hotel

A delicious Wes Anderson confection

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The Grand Budapest Hotel looks good enough to eat. Its design, cinematography, costumes and locations are all dazzling. Like eating one of its Mendl’s Patisserie confections, there is delicious fun to be had while the sugar-rush lasts, but despite widespread critical acclaim, we are still waiting for Wes Anderson’s more substantial main course.

The film is framed by ‘The Author’ of a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel, which we see a girl clutching in a graveyard in 1985. His memories return to 1968, when he visited the ‘enchanting old ruin’ as a cure for ‘scribe’s fever.’ Here he meets owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), former Lobby Boy for concierge Monsieur Gustave H, who recounts the story of his life during the hotel’s heyday of the 1930s, when it was a sumptuous retreat in the fictional eastern republic of Zubrowska.

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Gustave (the excellent Ralph Fiennes) is a suave, silver-tongued gigolo, who wears perfume (L’Air de Panache), calls men ‘darling’ and is fond of spouting romantic poetry. Many elderly female guests come to the hotel because of him and he is happy to be ‘of service’ them. When one of his old flames (a glaucoma-eyed Tilda Swinton, with Mr Whippy hairdo) dies, there is an Addams Family gathering for the reading of her will. She has bequeathed to Gustave a priceless painting, ‘Boy with Apple’ and baddie Dmitri (Adrien Brody) is not best pleased. So he unleashes his Gestapo-leathered, knuckle-dusted thug (Willem Defoe) to retrieve it.

There follows a dizzying madcap adventure. While it unfolds we have fun playing ‘spot the famous actor’: Anderson famously attracts stars at cut-down prices and there are plenty of unobtrusive cameos here. Who’s that bald tattooed prisoner? Oh, right – it’s Harvey Keitel. Who’s that policeman with the chimney pot hat and fox brooch? It’s Edward Norton.

Gustave is sent to a Colditz-type prison; he escapes and teams back up with Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), who has fallen in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a girl with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her face. She works at Mendl’s Patisserie and smuggles tools past the guards in her cakes. There are Alpine escapades in monasteries, cable car switches, sledge chases and moments of slapstick violence (Persian cat lovers beware). Through it all Gustave remains debonairly unruffled, though he is powerless against the War that begins to intrude on the film’s world of colourful eccentricity. Black and white takes over the screen with the ascent of fascist Death Squads and Gustave’s charm loses its power.

Wes Anderson had been living in Paris before making what he calls his ‘European’ film. The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me of the French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s quirky French comedies Delicatessen (1991) and Micmacs (2009). Both share the ability to immerse the audience in their highly stylised worlds, fighting darkness with old-fashioned charm, decency and outsider oddness. Gustave and his hotel are described as a ‘faint glimmer of civilisation in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity’. Though his world, as Zero says, ‘had vanished long before he entered it.’

The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the writing of Stefan Zweig, a prominent anti-fascist Austrian novelist in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Wikipedia, Zweig divided critics, who either praised his humanism and simplicity or dismissed his works as lightweight and superficial. Likewise, Anderson’s films have been accused of valuing style over content. His latest does provide food for thought, but it is the visual feast that stays in the memory. The film’s trailer is magnificent and its posters are sublime. They set the bar so high that, walking out of the film itself, I felt slightly disappointed.