Adventures are in store for legendary concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), who works at a famous European hotel between the wars. His problems begin when one of the hotel's guests that he has had a romantic encounter with suddenly dies. The deceased woman (Tilda Swinton) leaves Gustave a valuable painting, much to the horror of her son (Dmitri (Adrien Brody).

The return of a great storyteller.

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: There’s a moment in the evolution of any definable style when it tips into mannerism, becoming first an imitation of itself, then a parody. With Moonrise Kingdom, I feared Wes Anderson had reached this point. For me, there had been steadily diminishing returns since 1998’s Rushmore – still his masterpiece: the film which most successfully reconciled his aesthetic fixations with identifiable human emotions... but Moonrise seemed particularly thin. A few of its performances were bad – the young boy, in particular – and its narrative, not exactly complex to begin with, quickly ran out of steam. (If you stop to analyse it, the film’s second half consists of little more than people running this way and that.)

It’s his grandest plaything to date

But more crucially, its sense of whimsy – the bass-note upon which the whole, tottering structure rode – felt forced and unconvincing. Favouring strenuous farce over irony, and too often subordinating his characters to their costumes, Anderson seemed to have run up against the limits of his vision. (Ironically, the film proved his biggest commercial success.)

It’s safe to say, then, that my expectations were not exactly high for this one – and certainly not after a trailer which seemed simply to promise more of the same, right down to a uniformed Edward Norton Jr. once again barking commands to a circle of men. (They were dressed as policemen this time, rather than boy scouts. But even so.)

So it’s a pleasure, instead, to report that this is in fact a triumph – not only funnier and sharper than his last few features, but also far more ambitious, detailed, and deeply-felt. His sense of visual design is intact; likewise, the hallmarks of his visual grammar: the whip-pans; the abrupt, matched-to-dialogue pull-ins; the strict frontal compositions... Yet somehow the overall effect feels less prissy and fetishistic than usual. Perhaps because its narrative, all interlocking parts and stories-within-stories, is simultaneously broader and denser than he’s ever attempted ever before. As you watch it unfold, you feel like Anderson is interested in telling a story again, rather than simply offering up a slide-show of exquisite, airless tableaux.

The action spans three different time-periods. The most important though is 1932, when in one of Europe’s grandest old hotels, veteran concierge Gustave (a superb Ralph Fiennes) takes young lobby-boy Zero (relative newcomer Tony Revolori) under his wing – just days before one of his regular guests (and lovers), 84-year-old aristocrat Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, unexpectedly dies, soon after Gustave has spent the night with her. ('I make love to all my friends,’ he murmurs.)

Much to her family’s fury, she has bequeathed much of her estate to Gustave – including a precious Renaissance painting ('Boy With Apple’). A bitter legal battle ensues, in the course of which the painting is stolen, a caveat is misplaced, and Gustave is accused of having killed the old woman to achieve her inheritance. And before long, he will find himself framed for yet another murder . . .

Did I mention that this is all being narrated, from more than forty years on, by the now-adult Zero – who has himself inherited the Grand Budapest, by now deep in decline? No? Well, there’s a lot of ground to cover. And though the cast is extraordinarily rich, and packed with regular members of Anderson’s stock company, the pacing is so brisk that many of these supporting players get only a single scene – and occasionally even less than that: Bill Murray’s contribution is scarcely longer than his cameo in The Darjeeling Limited, while Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman barely have time to register before they’re gone. Still, Adrian Brody is good, and Willem Dafoe makes a memorable grotesque. And F. Murray Abraham, as the grown Zero, is typically magisterial; he’s become one of the most compelling presences in contemporary cinema.

But a great deal of the satisfaction here resides in watching Fiennes, a truly great actor, display a comic sensibility not seen since his supporting turn in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. This time he’s channeling Chaplin – not only the physical comedy of the Little Tramp, but the refined verbal surface of Monsieur Verdoux – and his line-deliveries, his body-language, his timing, are all joys to behold. (He’s helped, of course, by some mordantly witty dialogue: explaining his preference for older women, Gustav observes that 'When you’re young, it’s all fillet steak. But as you get older, you have to move onto the cheaper cuts.’)

His character is also the most fascinating creation in Anderson’s cinema since Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum: A louche bisexual, a lover of life’s finer things who somehow resists the lure of simple snobbery, Gustave is at one point discovered being fellated by one of his regular guests – to which he responds with the same bland insouciance he might turn upon a carelessly knotted necktie. (Framed in Academy ratio, the shot seems intended as a homage to another, rather darker hotel-set fantasy, Kubrick’s The Shining.)

You read that correctly: there is a blowjob in this movie. Not shown, of course – but it’s a breakthrough nonetheless. Actual sexuality comes at last to the buttoned-up, oddly arrested world of Wes Anderson! In other ways, too, the film departs from formula. There is, for example, a gunfight of some duration. And every so often a surprising shot, an angle or choice of lens that looks oddly out of place in a Wes Anderson film – which itself says a lot about how ossified and reductive his aesthetic has become. Overall, you have the sense that he’s consciously trying new things. As if trying to escape the artistic straitjacket (designed by Prada, probably) which has come to bind him.

But above all, there is a clear sense of an old world passing, its customs and manners – and its most notable inhabitants – all sliding irrevocably into the past, to be either forgotten or erased. The setting may be a made-up country (the 'Republic of Zubrowka’), and the villains might wear ZZ armbands instead of SS ones . . . nevertheless, you get a clear and painful sense of the danger that Fascism represented to the denizens of 1930s Europe.

Part of this is directly attributable to the spectre of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, whose gorgeous, elegaic novellas and stories Wes Anderson apparently discovered in a bookstore in Paris, and installed as a presiding influence here; the film ends with an onscreen acknowledgement of his inspiration. (Fleeing Nazi persecution, Zweig and his wife Lotte found sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro, but succumbed there to a depression similar to that which besets poor Gustave in this film: a sense of the end of culture, of the barbarians at the gates. The couple committed suicide in Petrópolis in 1942.)

But some of it is Anderson himself, more open and emotionally forthright than at any time in the past decade. And frankly, it’s about time. For a while there I suspected that his closest artistic peer wasn’t another filmmaker at all (for who else makes films like Wes Anderson?), but the cartoonist Chris Ware ('Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth’, 'Building Stories’). The two men share a number of obsessions – not least, a preoccupation with absent, careless or mendacious fathers, and a perhaps compensatory obsession with typography, layout and design. Even Ware’s obsessively meticulous grids seemed reminiscent of Anderson’s extreme formalism, the tight, neat little boxes he built to put his characters in.

In fact his films from The Royal Tenanbaums on, even when they were working smoothly, couldn’t help but feel at times like the work of some autistic interior decorator, obsessively shifting his pieces around the dollhouse he had built to contain them. This film is different. It’s his grandest plaything to date, his most splendid and glittering toy – yet for all the ornamentation on display, it’s also his most human and humane.


Watch 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Tuesday 29 December, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2014
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Language: English
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Tony Revolori, Owen Wilson, Jude Law

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson interview
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