First things first Fiennes fornicates all over Wes Anderson’s world of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Whether offering fellatio to the statelier clientele of the Budapest’s luxury suites or luxuriating in the metrosexual sweets of his preferred parfum, l’air de panache, Ralph Fiennes dominates every scene as the hotel’s iconic concierge, Gustave, H. Ralph Twisleton Wykeham Fiennes seems to be the tailor made man for a film that revolves around the contested inheritance of one Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis, played by the waifish Tilda Swinton. Swinton’s appearance is just one delight in a kaleidoscope of cameos, from Bill Murray to Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law to Owen Wilson, Anderson calls in favours from a whole host of Hollywood legends. There is even a blink and you have definitely already missed it moment from a moustachioed Clooney at the film’s raucous climax.
Nonetheless, for all the superb talent on show, Ralph Fiennes’ comedy breakthrough is the highlight. He is an actor familiar to the young for shooting jets of green light and needing a restraining order to keep him away from Daniel Radcliffe, for the more middle aged, a typically English heartthrob with a purring darker side and for the older theatre intelligentsia, one of the most respected Shakespearean actors of his generation. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes offers every ounce of his ability to craft a character who seems so familiar, yet antiquated, so quintessentially English, yet cosmopolitan. The beauty of the characterisation lies in every posture and cut glass consonant that Fiennes utters, revealing a timing and comic flair that unlocks this treasure chest of a film. Gustave is the bedrock of The Grand Budapest Hotel as an institution; Fiennes, the film. Extremely loosely based on the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, Anderson deploys his singular creative licence in the evocation of a world that is paradoxically both so concrete in its idiosyncrasy, but so ephemeral in its capture of a lost era. The personification of this concept is the character of Gustave, the last of a dying breed of opaque opulence and simple splendour.
Defining the exact period in question is a task by itself. The narrative hoovers up the decades from the First World War and its spiked German helmet through to the SS iconography of the thirties, as the fictional state of ‘Zubrowka’ (vodka!) mirrors the social and political upheaval of the early twentieth century. It is perhaps best to read the film not as history; more an epitaph for the interwar period, the fledgling return to the heyday of the last century, before the rise of fascism and the impending doom of the modern age snatch these last drops of glorious glitter too soon. Anderson collects the residue of this elusive era and immortalises the people and places onscreen in a melodic melancholy that bursts brightly with authenticity to capture the essence of Gustave’s lost world. It is rare that a film can capture an abstract notion but Anderson’s film is a one hundred minute exercise in nostalgia. The pedantry of the production, every scene is perfectly shot to form a portfolio of freeze frames, raises the film from a medium for dialogue and plot to a visual extravaganza: a standalone art installation. Only, unlike an exhibit which can feel metallic, through the harmony of CGI and real location, Anderson concocts an immersive, warm world. The Grand Budapest Hotel itself is there to be gazed upon in awe; the film exists as a family slide show, slowly ticking through the shots of collective conscience: flickering the vestiges of memory back to life.
Artistically, the film is a triumph of colour and depth, distilling a chocolate box beauty into which the characters are placed like toys in a childhood game. The fastidious overproduction is all geared towards the maintenance of an almost postcard plasticity; the apparent simplicity belies the microscopic attention to detail. This myopia harmonises beautifully with the major feature of the film, fun. It is a comedy after all and it delivers on this front spectacularly. Although on first viewing it is almost impossible to zone out of the meandering intricacies of the interwoven micro-plots and enjoy the subtle comedic details, there are simpler pleasures. As much as Anderson formulates a beautiful world for the imagination, it is disturbed with moments of slapstick and gore that only seem to give the film an ever more transient, daydream quality. The gore, let us not forget the initials of the film are GBH, comes in the form of Willem Dafoe’s brutal bailiff Jopling, whose style has no respect for Persian cats, heads or fingers. Personally, the sight of a black-clad, devilish Dafoe on the hunt for Gustave via a trail of fragrance (l’air de panache) and fancies (Mendl’s cakes), takes some beating. Gustave’s incarceration is brilliant as our unlikely hero plans the unlikeliest Great Escape in a Coen Brothers meets Colditz sequence of scenes that blends effortlessly into a story of its own. That is the defining feature of the film, the ability of Anderson and his acting minions to marry a complex patchwork of apparently tangential plotlines into an accomplished mosaic.
For all the famous faces that make the cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel an encyclopaedia of acting talent, final word must go to seventeen year old debutant, Tony Revolori. He is the ever-present Lobby Boy, Zero, through whose eyes we meet the revolving door of personalities of the Hotel. It is a staggeringly mature performance from a young actor, exposed to a whole host of household names, but whose character, in cooperation with Fiennes’ Gustave, comes to define the film and stitch together a cohesive narrative. The defining image of the pair is the miniature reflection of Zero, framed perfectly in the shaving mirror of the train carriage as Gustave surveys his inheritance on the bunk below. The two main characters, the main plot device and a highly stylised angle that Anderson makes look so easy: the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel in a single shot.