Interesting things we’ve recently unearthed – American film director Wes Anderson is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ great-grandson. Fascinating eh? And how did we excavate this submerged treasure? Through some slightly distracted googling whilst an afternoon was whimsically frittered away with a screening of 1976′s At The Earth’s Core, based on the Burroughs book of the same name, that’s how. When it comes to whimsy and superficial surfaces the less charitable among you may elect Mr. Anderson as its most ardent practitioner, his so-called ‘doll-house’ movies replete with ornate production, a lively sense of colour and visual panache, all ameliorated with a visual box of delights from a camerawork as stylus approach, with whip-pans, 2D compositions and intersecting activity along different screen planes the celluloid playground that his broadly comedic characters strut their schtick. His latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to have delighted his ardent fans with yells of joy at this ‘most Anderson-esque movie yet’, a choir of celebration which has provided ample ammunition for his detractors to enhance their critical broadsides on his alleged empty style and irritating affectations. The complaints that his films are all surface with no heart, of being admittedly fun but meaningless romps, the astute and individual design a joy for anyone versed in the visual arts even as they are wallpaper hangings plastering over the cracks in an empty house bereft of genuine insight into the human condition certainly strikes a chord of truth here at the Menagerie. In his defence though must every movie have some serious intent and purpose? Of course not, and for my sins I have slowly been drifting back to the cheerleaders camp over the past few years, as the unamusing and unengaging demands of The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox have been eclipsed by the magical joy of Moonrise Kingdom which I absolutely loved and almost made my favourite pictures list of 2012. In that sense I strolled into this picture with a small sense of expectation, early word of mouth was strong and the trailer got my attention, and I think its fair to say that the film delivered exactly its intent – a fun, ornate, sporadically amusing romp with much to enjoy on a visual level, a confection box movie stuffed with more caramel swirls and tangy nougat than the rarely depleted orange creams or strawberry surprises.
An opening shot centres on a doll’s house facade of the titular hotel, as Anderson seems to be baiting his detractors and withdrawing further into his idiosyncratic style, before also amusingly nesting his narrative in a Russian doll structure – in 1986 an Author (Tom Wilkinson) speaks to camera of his experience of visiting the Grand Budapest in 1964 where he meets its secretive owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abrham), the reporter played in his younger incarnation with the pipe-wielding charm of Jude Law. Mr. Mustafa visits the hotel annually to wallow in a nostalgic fugue, and welcomes the chance to tell the story of how he first came to the legendary domicile in the years before the second world war, flashing back a further timeframe to his earlier incarnation as Zero (new-comer Tony Revolori) and the start of his friendship and camaraderie with the films central character, the devilishly charming Monsieur Gustave H – Ralph Fiennes in actual broadly hilarious comedic shock!! Gustave is the bedroom based scourge of continental Europe, giving the elderly nobles of polite society some small measure of sexual relief in their twilight years, but when one of them crops up dead (a heavily masked Tilda Swinton) and bequeathes the priceless picture ‘Boy With Apple’ to Gustave in her will the act of generosity is not accepted well by her corrupt son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) or his twisted henchman J.P Jopling (Willem Dafoe), and soon the race is on to seize the heirloom and uncover the real culprit in the death, as war looms precipitately on the horizon….
This most Marmite of directors – you either love him or hate him – has baked quite a confectionary with his richest film to date, a creamy and tasty soufflé which may be hollow at its core yet still serves an appetite sating tasty treat. Taking his inspiration from the work of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig Anderson throws many more ingrediants into the pot, his affectionate references to early cinema history is deeply infectious, as whilst he channeled the ghosts of the French New Wave for Moonrise Kingdom this time he gorges himself on a banquet of even earlier film history rarely presented in American cinema these day. From Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to the bittersweet satire’s of Ernst Lubitsch, from 1930′s UK period caper-mode Hitchcock to even the casting of a spitting image simulacrum of Von Stroheim as a secret police captain, all boiled to near perfection in the cauldron of a caper movie receipe. You don’t necessarily need to be a connoisseur to enjoy the bounty however as the comedic characters strike a sharp balance with the debonair design, and it gallops throughout its breathless chase narrative with enough wit and dexterous charm to keep any appetite for more intellectually nourishing material at bay, and Ralph Fiennes is worth the price of admission alone as he is very, very funny.
Anderson visually cues each era of the onion layer plot with a shifting format of aspect ratios – 2:35:1, then 1:85:1 and finally the classic Academy ratio of 1:33:1 for the bulk of the 1930′s main course of the story, and like a prestige film from the golden period – naturally Grand Hotel springs to mind – the film is positively stuffed to the gills with his alumni troop – Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson - and new players to take a seat at the table including Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric and Saorise Ronan as Zero’s pastry chef savant love interest. Some sequences had me guffawing in the aisles due to sheer invention and delicious execution: the reveal of the Society of Crossed Keys, a EU illuminati of leading hotel concierges; the prison break which seems a perfect, brisk encapsulation of every incarceration movie made over the past century - all orchestrated to impeccably mounted lateral tracking shots, a delicious deployment of colour and dizzying whip-pan’s. Critics still complain that his films can be suffocating, of the miniscule wriggle room that his players have to shine within his densely storyboarded blueprints, the exacting control squashing any sense of the moment or improvisation in his cloistered cinema. Maybe so. But the sheer joie du vivre in simple storytelling shines through, its energy and briskly comedic pace framed in the witty banter and exquisite craft on display here, with Anderson hermetically sealed world of strict codes and enforced protocols building a robust body of work which continues to mature like a fine 1954 Bordeaux. If you’re starved of fun at the cinema then The Grand Budapest Hotel is a picture to feast upon, with just a slight vinegar aftertaste of a bittersweet period that’s long gone;