It’s hard to know where to begin in telling you what The Grand Budapest Hotel is “about”. The plot is nested like a matryoshka doll, featuring framing devices within framing devices (and the aspect ratio mirrors this, varying between time periods). It’s probably most accurate to say that it is about M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel; his young protegé (Tony Revolori), who will later become its owner (F. Murray Abraham); and a painting.
I already compared the film to a Russian doll, but its toylike qualities don’t end there. The hotel looks like a doll’s house; the scenery looks like a model village. The effect is as charming as it is disconcerting – it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Anderson has made toy things look “real” or made “real” things look like toys, but whichever it is, it fits perfectly into the world he’s constructed.
All this is to be expected from Anderson, though. The real surprise here is Fiennes. Everybody knows he’s a great dramatic actor; too few people know he’s a great director (his two films to date, ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘The Invisible Woman’, are completely different and equally excellent); his comic chops, though, had yet to be fully proven. And proven they are. He absolutely steals the screen (you have to feel a little sorry for his co-star, Revolori, who gives a classic Andersonian deadpan performance which unfortunately lacks lustre next to Ralph’s flamboyant turn). Gustave has a little of Quentin Crisp about him, in his unapologetic camp and his unwavering politeness in the face of adversity, but he’s really a character entirely his own.
If I have one criticism, it’s that women get a bit of a raw deal here. An almost-unrecognisable Tilda Swinton makes the most of a small but pivotal role, and Saoirse Ronan gives a sweet, grounded performance in a part not much bigger, but the men get most of the meaty stuff to do.
Although this isn’t a trend I’d like to see continue in Anderson’s films (or cinema in general), I don’t really have any complaints. The Grand Budapest Hotel is, quite honestly, a singular joy from start to finish, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Photograph by Wes Anderson, who owns the copyright.