The Sunday Times
The fictional literary genius and playwright Margot Tenenbaum is the reason I’m in Barcelona for the first time in twenty-three years. During my visit in 1992 I had the pallor and the smoking-habit of the Wes Anderson creation from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but not the mink and the missing fingertip. I spent that holiday with my Walkman headphones clamped to my ears listening to a demo from a band called Suede: ‘Won't someone give me a gun/Oh well it’s for my brother’. Days later, back home in England my brother died prematurely, while in his thirties. In hindsight that sequence of events and what followed had the hallmarks of the prologue from a Wes Anderson project. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums starts with a bomb going off. The rest of the story takes place in the wreckage’, says the critic Matt Zoller Seitz author of ‘The Wes Anderson Collection’. In Barcelona now, years after witnessing how death can disfigure a family as surely as a parental divorce fractured the Tenenbaums, I’m booked into a hotel that’s inspired by the couple's adopted daughter.
In keeping with its subtle interiors and absence of signage, Margot House was launched with a whisper rather than a shout back in the spring. This is just one of a series of sightings of the Wes Anderson influence this year, a trend that transcends film and settles in fashion and design. In Milan in May Prada re-launched its arts and cultural institute Prada Fondazione in a former distillery. Housed within this and designed by Wes Anderson, a take on the traditional 1950s Milanese cafe - Bar Luce. (Prada had previously financed the Anderson short Castello Cavalcanti).The interior is like a montage of the motifs and luminous pastels from an Anderson mise en scéne. There are formica booths in eau-de-Nil; a pink terrazzo floor peppered with red, grey and snow white speckles.The theme of its pinball machines is his film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). From a distance, the fresco-like wallpaper is reminiscentof The Grand Budapest Hotel the film that delivered Anderson five oscars in 2015. It's the director’s attention to detail, his precision and perfection, his attempt to create miniature worlds that Sandra Durany hoped to bring to her own project - Margot House.
Her background is retail; her and her father own chain stores in Spain. She tells me she’s an avid traveller, an afficiando of hotels. I think of Madame D the character in The Grand Budapest Hotel - a rich, elderly itinerant from the halcyon days of grand hotels in the 19th century. I think of the Radission in Mali dominating the headlines of the newspapers in the lobby. Tourism is changing, contracting, in the shadow of terrorist attacks. Maybe travellers will soon be looking for small, subtle, discreet places to stay. Margot House is an attempt at a new concept according to Sandra Durany: ‘A hotel that feels like home’. You step out of one of the nine rooms into a corridor opening into a huge lobby and an open kitchen. The overall design riffs on minimalism and Japanese and Scandinavian themes. The cashmere blankets keep you warm; the white-washed walls keep you cool. The one sign of Margot Tenenabaum is the large framed image of her bedroom door with its African mask and ‘Do Not Disturb’s signs. Seated in the lobby, as though on a stage set, a soundtrack plays sotto voce as Mel Tormè tells us to trust out wanderlust and I ask: “Why Margot?’. Why the adopted daughter in a family of child prodigies that morph into dysfunctional adults? Sandra explains, her two colleagues interpret, and convey something along the lines of this: Margot, is a deep woman with a hidden side to her, giving off a glamorous and almost elusive feel. She’s intelligent and sophisticated, sexually promiscuous and apathetic. There is a scent throughout the hotel that follows you as you leave and greets you when you arrive. It’s top notes are somehow cloying yet calming. I think of l’Air de Panache the perfume that Gustave, the manager of the Grand Budapest, is never without.
Margot House is concealed within a fortressed, elegant apartment block on Passeig de Gràcia - the equivalent of a Madison Avenue or Avenue Montaigne in the upmarket neighbourhood of Eixample. This is where Catalan modernisme meets branded luxury. Directly opposite the hotel is Barcelona’s ‘block of discord’, where Gaudi’s Casa Batlló stands, as stately as a galleon, alongside the equally iconic Casa Lleó-Morera. Beyond the windows of the latter, at ground level, is the luxury Spanish heritage brand Loewe. It’s enjoying a radical renascence under new creative director and British fashion wunderkind J. W. Anderson. He’s one of a number of designers that have referenced the looks of Wes Anderson characters this year. Lacoste and Bally gave a nod to the tennis garb of Richie Tenenbaum. Mui Mui opted for the mini-dresses of Suzy Bishop from Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2002). Margot Tenenbaum - previously a favourite costume for Halloween nights - was favoured by Gucci, among others, with toffee-coloured furs and flesh-coloured chemises. Wasn’t this how the character came to fruition ? Wes Anderson had a very specific upmarket designer look for her from the off, which she wore as a uniform from infancy onwards: the Fendi fur coat, Hermès Birkin bag, Bas Loafers.
Criticisms of Anderson films are few and rare, but among the charges levelled are those that the intricate detail and heightened design results in an absence of reality, and cartoon characters that lack depth. It’s a an argument that Matt Zoller Seitz addresses in his books on the work of Wes Anderson - his 'The Grand Budapest Hotel’ hardback was published this year - and similarly the thumbnail videos he has produced entitled ‘The Substance of Style’. He suggests that all of Anderson’s films are comedies, and yet none of them are. ‘He comes at reality, historical and personal in an oblique and fanciful way’, he says. The places and settings might not always be real, but the characters emotions certainly are. ‘Anderson’s movies are filled with personal abysses. If the scripts read lightly around them, it’s only because the characters are living in the abyss, and have been for years, probably their whole lives. On some level we know this, and we can feel it.’ According to the fashion writer Christopher Laverty we can read the interiors of Anderson characters by studying their exteriors. This is true of Madam D. Her style is that of a figure locked in a distant past of grand tours and hotel-hopping. A past that was not merely another country but another Europe.
Hotels are a letimotif in Anderson films: the 2007 short Hotel Chevalier, the hotel that houses Royal Tenenbaum when he’s estranged from his family, and the Grand Budapest in the film inspired by the fiction of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. In his autobiography The World of Yesterday, published in 1942 the year he committed suicide, Zweig laments the passing of the familiar Europe he travelled through that changed when borders closed and bombs fell: ‘I have been a defenceless, helpless witness to the unimaginable relapse of mankind into what was believed to be long forgotten barbarism, with its deliberate programme of inhuman dogma’. Its a sentiment that resonates with those of us at Margot House, as the news updates break the silence and the serenity. Paris is reeling in the wake of attacks. Belgium is in a state of emergency. The Spanish present are reminded of, and refer to the Madrid train bombings in 2004. I recall the London bombings and the 52 people murdered ten years ago last summer. The narrative changed that day. The rest of the story takes place in the wreckage.