Faulty Towers: The Grand Budapest Hotel Reviewed

Yasmeen Khan books a suite at the Grand Budapest Hotel, but is Wes Anderson's latest a room with a view in scenic Venice or a Travelodge in bleakest Nuneaton?

The trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel does its best to present the film as a hectic, picaresque farce. It seems pitched squarely at an idealised Anderson audience, one it thinks will giggle at the sight of a moustachioed Jude Law wearing a swimming cap in the bath and Ralph Fiennes saying “darling” in a mournful tone and being punched in the face. Oddball people ski maniacally, take wild potshots at each other, wave obscene Schiele-esque paintings and saw madly at prison bars, all set to increasingly frenzied balalaika music as if this were Delicatessen by way of ’Allo ‘Allo.

It’s annoying, this calculated concentration of whimsy, partly because it somewhat misrepresents the film, but mostly because of its insistence that what Anderson’s about, what his audience want, is a relentless parade of we’re-all-mad-here quirkiness, a tone veering from unbearably arch to sickly-sweet to morose, a collection of silly trousers and absurd moustaches having slapstick adventures. The thoughtful side of Anderson, the need to interrogate familial relationships, the ties of love and loyalty and above all our relationship with our pasts, fades into the background. A trailer can only do so much, of course, but its priorities are nevertheless revealing. The Grand Budapest Hotel is only punctuated by zaniness, rather than ruled by it, and some moments of cold-hearted darkness give it a nasty edge – but the balance is off.

Anderson begins by setting up the layers of his narrative, signalled by the opening of a book in the present day. A novelist, now dead, wrote a much-loved book in which a man tells a story from his youth of meeting of a man who told him a story about his youth. It’s an effective if well-worn literary device, a self-conscious understanding that the film’s narratives are exactly that, stories designed to be nested. The structure is also formally cemented in the very shape of the film. Its historical periods are represented by three aspect ratios: the present and the 80s are in 2:35:1, the 60s in 1:85:1, and then the picture narrows to Academy ratio (1:33:1) for the 1930s sections. It’s a deliberately unsettling feeling, seeing a picture cinemas aren’t even designed to accommodate any more.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the film’s core weakness. It’s so conscious of its own formality that the actual content of the stories, their emotional heart, takes second place behind the manner of their telling. The composition and meticulous detailing of any given frame always takes precedence to its actual subject. It’s similar to the way actors always move very deliberately and precisely in Anderson’s films, interacting with each other and their surroundings in a kind of dance, Here, it heightens the impression that the aesthetic effect is more important artistically than the ‘truth’ behind it, even when that might have something quite profound to say.

Tom Wilkinson plays the novelist, writing in the ‘80s. Jude Law is his narrator, telling the story of a stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel in the ‘60s. By then, for our first sight of the hotel, it’s suffered a hideously perfect orange and brown modernisation, and is very much in decay. The writer meets Mr Zero Moustafa (a marvellous F Murray Abraham) who turns out to be the hotel’s owner, willing to share his story over dinner. He takes the narrative another leap back in time to his youth in the ‘30s when he became the hotel’s ‘lobby boy’, under the wing of Ralph Fiennes’ charismatic concierge Gustave H. Fiennes’ is the quintessential Anderson role, the anti-patriarch at the heart of it all. Towards other characters, he’s ambivalent, pseudo-paternal. He’s gloomy, gentle, flawed, idealistic, clinging onto an illusion of control over the ersatz family he’s created and living by the codes of a bygone age.

The setting is the fantastical landscape of a Mitteleuropean country called Zubrowka (like the Polish vodka but without the diacritics), which is as much of a fictional construction as the India of The Darjeeling Limited (2007) or the New England wilderness of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. It’s not meant to feel real, but instead familiar. It’s an accretion of influences, known from countless stories. Outside the safe confines of the hotel, Zubrowka consists of nothing but perilous ravines, snow and treachery. Our heroes must brave this world, though, and outfox various pantomime villains in the chase to recover a MacGuffin – a painting (Boy With Apple, who looks like Edward VI in an allegory of lost innocence). They lead us on a series of ridiculous capers, up and down mountains, in and out of prison; but although the film’s bursting with things that happen, it’s all oddly anodyne. There’s no real sense that any of this matters, because of course it doesn’t. The journey’s circular, a red herring, like all of Anderson’s journeys, just as the search for the giant shark doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s really going on in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). No one’s really in any danger and nothing much is at stake. It’s just a way for characters to get the development they’re supposed to have, and that, the interesting stuff, actually happens in between the action, despite all the plot.

It does happen. The relationships, Anderson’s favoured themes of family, loyalty and nostalgia, are there, quieter moments standing out from the madcap goings-on. The thing is, they’re overshadowed in turn by the formality of the story, the fact of their function in the overall harmonious whole, represented by the Grand Budapest itself. And the hotel is not endangered by cartoon fascists or predatory heiresses. What threatens the hotel is what really threatens Gustave and Zero and the way of life they’re fighting to defend – the relentless march of time. Time, of course, has already won. The tide had turned before Zero even arrived at the Grand Budapest; that’s the real tragedy, the sour undertone, the worm lurking as yet unseen in the boy’s perfect apple. Next to this, individual characters’ stories fade out of importance; this might be fine, but it happens too quickly, too smoothly. The stories don’t try to fight for precedence. The fact that the film’s full of big names in blink-and-you-miss-them roles suggests, in one way, an embarrassment of riches, a film so full of wonderful stories it justifies barely using Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, and Léa Seydoux. On the other hand, this promise isn’t really borne out. It’s telling that the production design has so much more importance in the film than most of its all-star cast.

Said design is, of course, utterly exquisite; every set is painstakingly, distractingly detailed, the compositions as gorgeous as the cake boxes with which they’re littered. No one else puts colours together like Anderson, that vibrant combination of light and richness. There’s also a lovely running visual joke, in which everything important bears a written label, from Zero’s ‘LOBBY BOY’ hat to drainage tunnels handy for escapes. This ostentatious self-consciousness is funny, but it also says, again, that this film’s spaces are constructed to allow the action to flow through them with ease, the better to get it out of the way.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with fantastical confections, from the vast pink wedding cake edifice of the titular hotel in its heyday to the complicated little choux buns created by Agatha the baker (Saoirse Ronan). Moreover, it feels as if it wants you to make this comparison, to admire the way cream and pastel fondant are layered just like the story, wrapped in a beautifully engineered sugar-pink box tied with a Prussian blue ribbon. It’s like a Channel 4 Heston Blumenthal special – the luxury creation of a perfectionist’s imagination, intensely nostalgic, obsessed with detail, ritual and formality. Thankfully, there’s that sour undertaste, a nasty edge of decay, which cuts through the saccharine and offers a way into the emotional heart of the story – but ultimately, also suggests this isn’t really what the film’s interested in doing. And as such, it hands responsibility for determining its success back to the viewer; like the Grand Budapest itself, the film is merely populated by its characters, somewhat indifferent to them, consumed by its larger concerns, and it’s up to you to decide if that satisfies your expectations.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is out in UK cinemas from today

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