Secret Cinema: The Grand Budapest Hotel

*Originally written for Exeunt*

In the space of about seven years, Secret Cinema and its affiliates have taken on a sort of mythical status in the capital. Everyone knows they exist but you come across very few people who have actually attended an event. They are always just out of reach, and a run is over before you get a chance to jump on the bandwagon, murkily slipping into transience. Similarly, you tend not to be bothered in any way unless it’s a film you know and love; why would you want to ‘immerse’ yourself in an environment about which you know next to nothing? Why would you fork out fifty quid for a ticket to a film you have no idea will be any good? Why would you fork out that money to see even your favourite film, for that matter, when you could spend it on drinks and snacks to entice friends to come over so you can watch it in the comfort of your own home?

I didn’t know any of the answers to those questions before visiting The Grand Budapest Hotel. I am still none the wiser.

You’ve heard the drill by now: you buy your Secret Cinema ticket knowing only the film’s title (and sometimes not even that). Then, a day or two before the event, an invitation comes through with a dress code and some instructions on what to bring (identification papers, flowers, etc). Then, on the day, directions get sent your way and you head over to the location, give in your phone and give yourself over to the experience, wandering round a giant film set before the evening ends with the movie itself.

Here, we are all patrons of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka. Oddly-accented staff address us as familiars and musicians fiddle with strange-looking instruments in dark corners. Peeping through spy-holes in bedroom doors, we come across visions of debauchery and scandal. Leather-coated mustacheod men watch over us and snow falls from the mountains.

Like any ‘immersive’ theatre piece, it takes a while to get your bearings, but once you’ve located yourself there are a couple of gems in Fabien Riggall’s artistic vision. In one room, we are asked our relationship to the deceased ‘Madame F’ and what she did for us, before realising we are trying to win some artefacts left in her will. Though I denied all knowledge of this mysterious figure, my companion fabricated a tale of studying anthropology in Vienna, but alas left the auction-like will-reading empty-handed except for the company of an eerie figure, who followed us for a number of minutes before leaving us be by the miniature-theatre where ‘Sultana’ sang songs of the thirties.

Aside from a few smart details, however, and the occasional encounter, it all feels a bit thin on the ground. Granted, this isn’t ‘immersive’ theatre in the conventional sense and nor does it market itself as such, but you get a sense that, though the company is directed well by Garrett Moore, some actors don’t quite seem to know what they’re doing and that corners have been cut in the dressing of some sets. The gaudy lighting (Patrick Woodroffe) makes the cracks clear, and you are never quite give yourself over to the world you’re being asked to buy into, as you spot the odd wire trailing from under a flat or come across a blanket covering a hole in a wall. You long for the seductive and deeply sensory (albeit frustratingly lonely) experience of Punchdrunk.

It’s not customary for critics to comment on the price of theatre tickets, as the unwritten rule has always been that we are there to discuss the piece of art in front of us and not its economics. With Secret Cinema, however, it’s difficult not to be aware of the exchange of money throughout the course of the evening, as bar staff, restaurateurs and vendors dotted around the lavishly-dressed sets attempt to sell you nourishment and alcohol (and that’s not even taking into consideration the ticket price). It all runs the risk of feeling a bit Disney-fied, like a carnivalesque money-making machine, and though this may well be necessary to cover costs, it’s undoubtedly a little alienating in the truly Marxist sense of the term.

And then, after a mad, dizzy final scene, we are shepherded into the makeshift cinemas to watch Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a dream of a movie, taking all the quiet humour of Moonrise Kingdom and exploding it into farce, all set against the epic backdrop of mountainous central Europe. The stunning, colourful sets are drawn with the broader brush-strokes of theatre, but are inhabited with characters verging on hysterical. The extraordinary cast (Tilda Swinton, Willem Defoe, Adrien Brody, etc) take us on a journey through time, telling the story of how a hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his protégé (Tony Revolori) feel the wrath of a wealthy family. Like many of Anderson’s films, it delves deep into notions of loss, memory and perspective, but also explores the beauty of art and friendship.

It also becomes increasingly clear how difficult a task it is to transpose the clarity and uniqueness of Robert Yeoman’s cinematography to live experience. With its ability to shift focus and take the moving image to a place beyond the conventionally realistic as it rests on doorways and staircases, it’s unlike the full-picture we get in real life and demonstrates why, perhaps, the event which came before was less successful; though the actors do their best to flirt with caricature like Anderson’s cast, the close proximity and the freedom we have over the choice of vista makes what might be a well-conceived world seem thin and undeveloped, surviving only as fragmented vignettes rather than a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, it could be suggested that the difficulty in engagement can be attributed to a lack of knowledge of the forthcoming feature, and it’s true that upon seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel, our evening starts to become a little less hazy. The problems run a little deeper than that, however, as the promise that we’ll be “losing ourselves” never really becomes manifest, no matter how much we throw ourselves into particular scenarios. Secret Cinema is an enjoyable experience and a chance to have a bit of fun playing for a couple of hours, but viewed alongside the gorgeously rendered world of Anderson’s film, this particular hotel pales in comparison.

Photo: Laura Little

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One thought on “Secret Cinema: The Grand Budapest Hotel”

  1. The film was great, but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was a bit disappointed by the frugal set dressing. Not a patch on Punchdrunk in that respect. I couldn’t completely immerse myself into the 1930s when the grand dining room was serving £10 dishes of food on paper plates with plastic cutlery.

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