I love Wes Anderson: the neo-Nouvelle Vague swagger, the precocious children, the middle-age ennui, the arch dialogue, the symmetrical compositions, the full-box-of-paints palette, the literary scaffolding of chapters and narrators. He also only seems to get better with age. Like his namesake Paul Thomas, the disquieting yin of American art-cinema to his wistful yang, Wes' development is less a question of reinvention than maturing into his own prodigious grammar. His last two films in particular, Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, were retro, anarchic delights that coalesced boundless visual ambition with a miniaturist melancholy. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest, trumps everything he's done so far.
Anderson's first 'European' film tells the story of lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and his relationship with Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the raffish manager of the eponymous Grand Budapest. As World War Two brews, Gustave's heady, perfumed existence is jolted by the reported death of an elderly millionairess, one of his many "old, blonde mistresses". Accompanied by protégé Zero, he hotfoots it across the continent to pay his respects, finds out she's left him a priceless artwork called Boy with Apple, then hotfoots it back with the painting under his arm and her furious family on his tail.
By turns rollicking caper, surrogate-father-and-son study and chaos-on-the-horizon tone poem, it is also a film about the retelling and dissimulation of stories, nested under various authorial layers. A girl visits the statue of an unnamed Author and opens a copy of his novel, The Grand Budapest Hotel. In her head, the middle-aged Author (Tom Wilkinson) introduces the plot; his younger self (Jude Law) takes over, before he bumps into the elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham) and the narrative resumes first-hand - all in the first fifteen minutes.
Indeed, though books, plays, letters, diaries and literary devices flutter throughout Anderson's work, this is his most writerly film and the script is his funniest so far - precise, peppery, swift, mischievous, elegant, slightly camp and toughened by unprecedented bolts of bad language. It is the sort of script actors must rejoice in and Ralph Fiennes is a fey, feathery, Laurence Olivier-ghosted delight. He splashes about in the lines, strutting and soaking in the steam. He anneals the film's wit, heating it with his nimble diction, then cooling it slowly with a deadpan-behind-the-eyes mystique. He strops the edges of Fiennes the Shakespearean actor on a whetstone of comic eloquence and the result is quite wonderful. His M. Gustave is a showman, a survivor, extrovertly unknowable, progressively old-fashioned; he is a quintessentially Wes Anderson creation, but the ventriloquy is so deft he becomes much more. I wonder how autobiographical he is - the microscopic pedantry; the flock of dutiful eccentrics (Bill Murray et al); the dapper, secretly piss-taking politesse in the face of authority - and there is something of the hotel manager about a film director. But I've tortured enough metaphors already this paragraph, so let's move on.
The film's look, as ever with Anderson, is beautifully fussed and there are satisfying echoes of earlier works (train journeys, bunk beds, severed limbs, periscopic zooms, silhouettes scampering from left to right). But the pink picaresque haze darkens as the plot progresses and the poignancy of the end, not to ruin anything, is intensified by the sudden Inception-esque withdrawal from each layer of story. Loneliness and nostalgia metastasise through the hotel and through the film, a mix of the high-whimsical, central-European nostalgia of Bohumil Hrabal's I Served The King of England and the drifting, dreamlike loneliness of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Certain shots, like the cavernous empty dining room, reinforce what strange, unnatural places hotels can be, cathedrals of sadness, crucibles of solitude ashen with escapist stasis. More than anything, M. Gustave's bedroom reveals an awful lot about the soul under the scented uniform.
In my typical hacky way, I once thought of Wes Anderson as the Belle and Sebastian of cinema, in that the quirky, cosy, crisp conveyance often covers up something a bit darker: the loneliness of the playground, the melodrama of puberty, the wry hyper-maturity of the outcast. But with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he's cultured his eye for serious nothings into something more devastating: the monstrous shards of war, the limits of art, the insidiousness of grief. For all its neat geometry, there is a jagged tragicomic potency to this film, which quietly celebrates writers (in a script itself a cause for celebration) against a backcloth slashed with political upheaval. As The Master did for Paul Thomas Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a war-shadowed, surrogacy-swathed, nostalgia-hued high for a contemporary American great who, thrillingly for us, just seems to be hitting his stride.