Agatha is one of the myriad characters in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, who works in a bakery, crafting exquisite cakes that one might associate more with the confectionery of Switzerland. Nevertheless it’s excellent visual shorthand for the generic Eastern European locale in which the titular hotel is situated, and a perfect metaphor for Anderson’s comedy-drama epic.
An elegantly spun, saccharine tasting construction, light on the palette, the film is gorgeous, lavish with vision and design and style. It venerates the cloying decadence of the last century, which still endures at the titular hotel in a kind of bubble – overseen by Ralph Fiennes’ polished, flowery, highly-strung Concierge, M. Gustave. Indeed, another character describes how Gustave maintains an illusion of the cultured excess of European ultra high-class, even as the continent itself slips inevitably into the horrors of the industrial age – a world war is the menacing shadow cast across proceedings.
Under his dedicated watch, the Hotel turns like greased clockwork – another metaphor for Anderson’s direction, as the film clicks neatly through its sequences at a brisk rate. Equally dedicated is the Concierge’s attention to the wealthy, unsatisfied and rich dowagers in a darkly comic sequence. It is the untimely demise of one of M. Gustave’s ‘clients’ – portrayed by the chameleonic Tilda Swinton – that propels our protagonist into a madcap adventure through snowy high-speed pursuits, dramatic hotel shoot-outs and grim train-bound confrontations.
Familiar faces flash by like stations we aren’t visiting – Bill Murray’s quasi-angelic concierge ex machina, Edward Norton’s dogged Javert-style policeman, Jeff Goldblum’s ponderous and unflappable Freud-inspired lawyer. Even the full-time villains – twitching, crazed Adrian Brody and impressively sadistic William Dafoe – feel like they are wheeled onto set, deliver their performance and are quickly shuffled back into storage until their next scene.
Illusion is at the heart of Grand Hotel Budapest. The Hotel is a safe haven for those fleeing reality – fleeing loveless lives for Gustave’s embrace, fleeing impending war for the pampering of nineteenth-century indulgence, fleeing nemeses to escape in its endless, echoing halls. By the end of the film, F. Murray Abraham’s character Zero has fled all his losses of his life for the now decaying and decrepit hotel, which is his last link to a happier past. All are illusions of safety and contentment that collapse, one by one, like dominoes falling, and the delicate icing on the start of this movie has become sour crumbs.
As the film concludes, we find we are leaving an old man’s reminiscence, only to find ourselves back with the author who wrote the story based on his tale. We then find we are leaving his reminiscence, and find ourselves with the young girl who read the author’s book. There are so many layers to this film, and yet each is the only the depth of a mirror or a fantasy. You’ll find it a glorious spectacle that enthralls so long as it is seen, and disappears as easily as a half-remembered dream the moment you step through the cinema doors.