What do we talk about when we talk about Wes Anderson? We talk about the construction of elaborate dollhouses. We talk about intricately designed spaces, heavy stylization, and the symmetry and repetition of shots. We talk about typography. We talk about what it means to call something twee. We talk about indulgence. We talk about how we figure nostalgia or what constitutes whimsy. We talk about Bill Murray. We talk about dialogue made natural only by its placement. Often times, we talk about how Wes Anderson's world intersects with our own. We are told that we should love him or we are told that we should grow out of him. That the thing he does is a thing that's over. That it's reached the point of self-parody. At least...this is my experience of talking about Wes Anderson. With each passing film the crowds seem to separate further. There are the Wes Anderson fans and the Wes Anderson detractors. There are very few, it seems, in the realm of the cinephiliacs who can let their opinions go unspoken. I am firmly in the fan camp.
Wes Anderson, for me, has become a stylistic signifier. He's a man, yes. He's a human, it's true. Perhaps, though, you know what I mean when I say that some people, some artists, exist more as ideas in our individual consciousness than as flesh. When I think of Wes Anderson I think of a world that is our world, but remapped according to a precise set specifications. It's not a better world, it's just a more organized one. What I'm saying here can be translated like so: when I go to watch a new Wes Anderson movie, there are frameworks and devices that I not only expect, but actively hope to see. Part of the marvel of what Wes Anderson does come from the way his stories stem from a seemingly self-imposed set of constraints. The question is not how different he can make the world or reinvent it, but instead how many stories he can pull from it, how many mediums or genres it allows for, and how the world can be formally manipulated without shattering the illusion of that world. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is testing the limits of that created world. He's seeing how much he can bring in from the outside, from the worlds of others, while still maintaining the delicate balance.
Consequently, the questions in Grand Budapest seem different. If Moonrise Kingdom was a live-action storybook in the way that Fantastic Mr. Fox was not, Grand Budapest is a live-action version of a cartoon Wes Anderson never bothered to make. There's something madcap about it, something zany, too fun, and disinterested in following the usual laws of the universe. It wants to know how much violence it can get away with without disrupting the humor. It wants to know how many characters it can introduce before the narrative dissolves. It wants to create a protagonist, de-center the protagonist, tell you the protagonist is someone else, and then construct a new world around them. On that same thread, it wants to know how many temporal frames it can create and get away with. This is the most curious aspect of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film opens with the introduction of a girl leaving a hotel key on a statue, then, it jumps to a video recorded by the figure the statue honors, then it jumps further back in his own history to a moment he was told a story, then, it jumps to the story itself.
It's in the final framework that we find what we would conventionally refer to as the film's "plot": Zero (Tony Revolori), a young lobby boy, finds himself being trained by the hotel's curiously charismatic concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is beloved by the guests, including a large population of elderly divorcees he tends to, let's say, quite attentively. When one of those guests leaves a priceless painting to Gustave, he finds himself embroiled in a particularly explosive family drama. The widow's devilish son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), swears revenge on Gustave and a miniature battle breaks out against the backdrop of a fictional country on the brink of all-out war. This time, Anderson's dollhouse constructing has extended beyond families or small islands, it involves the creation of an entire country, of armies, of mountain ranges, funiculars, airy old resorts and long histories of storytelling. He sets the story against a backdrop at once immediately recognizable and yet completely foreign. The conflicts leading up to what would be WWII and occupation are miniaturized and transformed. There are fascists at the gates, fascists in the newspapers, fascists occupying the hotel. They are called Zig-Zags (with ZZs on their uniforms) and clearly a childlike approximation of Nazis, but they go largely unused in any way that could be considered conventional. Instead, the enemies at the gate seem present as necessary components of a grand adventure. Though the soldiers do little to aggravate the situation themselves, their presence contextualizes the film's mood swings. There's a tension lurking just beneath the surface of every joke. It's a tension spawned from posturing, from negative potential, and, from the constant possibility of sudden, terrible violence. When we know what could happen, the loss of a few fingers or the finding of a head in a basket can, in context, stand as a macabre punchline.
This is a step in the idea of Wes Anderson, and one that embraces the things we talk about when we talk about the director as much as it complicates them. It's the first of his films in a long while that seems to be dabbling quite excessively outside of his own milieu and drawing outside materials into the world. There are moments, for example, when scenes will feel like an addendum to what Inglorious Basterds could have been if it never left the play-acted moments of the basement bar. There are other moments, too, when we run through scenes like we're on a Buster Keaton tear. More than either of those things, though, it's gloriously screwball. The influence of Lubitsch and Sturges (to some extent, Renoir) are palpable, and the film is shot as if in collaboration with Powell and Pressburger. The constructed vistas offer a new kind of dollhouse for the director, and the tight full-screen framing creates a picture window through the film and to an imagined past. The film is engaged in constant acts of creation and destruction. It gives us the things we want from a Wes Anderson film at the same time as it subverts our expectations, questions how we tell a story (or, more particularly: how we tell a Wes Anderson story), and exploits our Andersonian desire for order. It's wickedly smart even when at its most broadly comedic, and that is what's sneakiest about the whole damn thing. Just when you think you've got it figured out, when you think you're just there to enjoy another in a line of Wes Anderson films, when you think it's not trying to start a revolution, it goes and does the thing that throws that comfort into question. But, you know, pleasantly. And with a hearty dousing of panache.