Consider it quite appropriate that the Berlinale has chosen Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel to open the city’s film festival this year. It’s a gorgeously realised movie in thrall of filmmaking itself – an elaborately structured, highly cine-literate comedy that dazzlingly weaves not just one but three interlocking narratives, spanning across decades and shifting from one aspect ratio to the next and then another. It’s also a distinctly European-flavoured confection, serving up an alternate history of Germany between the two world wars, setting his rambunctious adventure in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, which looks like Bavaria as re-imagined through Andersonian lens. Here, historical resonance at its darkest i.e. the rise of fascism is handled with lightweight sensibility, but never with carelessness, and in pure Anderson fashion – no meticulous framing, tracking shot, backdrop detail and a Russian-doll narrative device is left unaffected by the delightful whimsy of the King of Quirk himself.
True to Anderson’s nimble and vibrant signature storytelling, 100 mins fly by and The Grand Budapest Hotel ambitiously swathes a few film genres, defying easy categorisation along the way. More than just a hotel memoir, Anderson manages to pack in a heist movie, a crime caper, a prison-break film, wartime noir, family drama and a buddy comedy. Ralph Fiennes (both wonderfully withering and ebullient, gracefully slipping romantic poetry one minute and dropping F-bombs the next) plays the vivacious chief concierge-cum-lothario Gustave H. and his flinty lobby boy Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori being the only unknown in the impressive intercontinental cast list), who both evade pursuit of the police and the shady clan of the murdered aristocrat Madame D. (an utterly game Tilda Swinton in age-old prosthetic), to which Gustave has been romantically linked to. To explain its plot further is to reveal its narrative complexities, and not since The Royal Tenenbaums has Anderson intricately mapped out a sheer collection of characters all pulling together a joyfully complicated scenario as told through novelistic chapters.
If there’s a caveat, a nagging sense frivolity halfway through threatens to derail this picture, and a chase scene atop snowy mountains becomes a near-desperate attempt for an action sequence. Emotional texture is also marginally compromised here, compared to the richness of depth in Tenenbaums and the blissfully nostalgic Moonrise Kingdom. But what it lacks in deep feelings make up for its innovative, exhilarating technical control, with Anderson pushing his form and style even further. The titular hotel itself is a masterpiece in production design and logistics, its opulent lobby, hallways and corridors breathing as much personality as its roster of eccentric characters. If we were to judge an entire film by its aesthetics alone, then this would be one of the most beautifully shot and grandiosely designed films in the last ten years. It’s a visual feast – and yet beneath the shiny ornate caprices, there’s Anderson quietly lamenting a bygone Romantic age of Europe, of the cultured yesteryear and the passage of time, making way for a brutal modernism. This film pleads us to look back and enjoy the glorious past.