Wes Anderson’s films skip eagerly across genres: crime stories, relationship dramas, family tragicomedies, coming-of-age tales. But they all tend to deal (broadly) with the same thing, and that’s the stories we tell ourselves that give us the ability to solve a problem we have created. Time and again in Anderson’s movies, somebody does something out of such extreme self-interest that they cause chaos in their lives and in the lives of everyone around them, after which they attempt reconciliation and atonement by intentionally crafting a new narrative of their life, recasting themselves as the hero. His films are narratives about the power of narrative, nested worlds of fictions and dramatizations that try again and again to make things rights.
For example: Rushmore’s Max Fischer lets his obsession with a teacher get out of hand, but he puts the pieces back together by righting his wrongs and reconnecting with his family and friends. He intentionally, knowingly takes on the role of “heartbroken kid who decides to suck it up and move on.” When, at the end of the film, he brushes off his trials with a knowing “I didn’t get hurt that bad,” he’s telling a huge lie that he’s chosen to believe, if only a little bit, just to keep going. Or there’s the titular Royal Tenenbaum, who spends most of his life being a selfish jackass and even invents a terminal illness just to see his family again, and who, when his deeds are exposed, willfully dismisses his needs in favor of everyone else’s: he plays matchmaker for his ex-wife, he settles his affairs, and he finds small, powerful ways to reconnect with his children. (Anderson’s tender intimacy surfaces in a wonderful moment late in The Royal Tenenbaums when Royal’s widowed son, Chas, says, “I’ve had a tough year, dad.” And Royal touches his son’s shoulder and says, “I know you have, Chassie.”) There’s Bottle Rocket’s Dignan, who realizes too late that he’s drawn his friends into a foolish crime spree and sacrifices himself; or the wily Mr. Fox, who gets carried away by his own ambition and self-regard and who rallies by helping his family survive the encroaching industrialists who’ve ruined nature in the name of commerce. There are the brothers working toward grace in The Darjeeling Limited, the families struggling to change themselves in Moonrise Kingdom, the wounded laments of Steve Zissou. These aren’t identical situations, of course, and characters and motivation change by story and era and style. But it’s hard not to see the larger picture: people not just trying to change themselves but actively rewriting the world around them to be better, happier, if only for a heartbeat.
In many ways, then, The Grand Budapest Hotel — Anderson’s eighth feature, and the first for which he has the sole screenplay credit (though artist Hugo Guinness shares story billing) — is not just a summation of the filmmaker’s career to date but the next logical step for a director who’s dedicated himself to the notion that, if we just pour enough of ourselves onto the page, we can save what needs to be saved. Anderson engineers a series of layers down through which we slip, finally reaching a primal, brightly colored world that’s anti-realistic and comical even as it proves to be the most powerful and engaging way to get at the emotional truth of the story. A young girl reads a book whose narrator recalls his encounter with another man years earlier, and that other man then tells his own story that sends us even farther back into the past. It’s a nested series of fables within fables, and as we move away from the real world, we get closer to the only one that matters.
Anderson underscores the basic dreamlike qualities of the central narrative with every detail. The most obvious is the visual framing: each era is given its own aspect ratio, meaning we literally change perspective every time we change narrator. The film’s opening in the present day and its subsequent quick jaunt back to 1985 are laid out in a 1.85:1 ratio, the same wide-ish composition used in Moonrise Kingdom and Bottle Rocket. It’s in the ’80s that we meet a character billed as the author (Tom Wilkinson), the narrator of a novel titled The Grand Budapest Hotel. He begins to recount the time he first traveled to the hotel in the 1960s, and it’s here that we skip back to that time period to find a version of the young writer played by Jude Law and an entirely different way of looking at things: 2.35:1, the gloriously wide frame from Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and others. The author’s trip to the far-flung European nation of Zabrowka, home to the declining Grand Budapest, is marked by space-age typefaces, wood panels, and orange carpeting, and it’s here that he meets the elderly Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner. Moustafa offers to tell the young author the story of how he came to possess the hotel, and Moustafa’s tale is the final leg of the initial journey and the beginning of the heart of the story. For it’s here that we switch perspective one more time, to the boxier Academy ratio of 1.37:1 that mimics the early years of Hollywood. That’s fitting, too, because it’s in this format (which takes up the bulk of the film) when Anderson is at his most fanciful and free, as in love with the little quirks and old-school ways of making movies as he’s ever been. It’s like a story pulled from some collective memory. Miniatures, obvious props, sight gags, gorgeous framing, candy-colored sets, ornate costumes, an enormous cast, jokes, heartbreak, action, adventure, suspense — it’s watching a maestro take the stand.
In 1932, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) is in his late teens when he begins work as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel, an opulent palace overseen by head concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is the soul of the Grand Budapest, a whirling, womanizing leader who reluctantly takes Zero under his tutelage. Broken out into chapters with ornately decorated title cards (e.g., “Part 4: The Society of the Crossed Keys,” about a Masonic organization of hotel concierges inspired by real life), Zero’s tale follows his early time with Gustave as they find themselves gradually but inextricably embroiled in a plot involving art theft, murder, conspiracy, fortune, and romance. This is the ultimate realization of Andersonian character as inventor of his own life: Zero’s story is several steps down from the more “real” aspects of the film world, and the gilding and little touches of his story are the most fanciful and constructed even as the nuts and bolts of the tale are meant to hold together. Mountain-top cable cars are depicted with obvious miniatures; the costume and color designs become more outsized and rococo. Even the occasional jumps back to the 1960s, providing reminders of the central narrative’s inherently artificial frame, are executed with a grand theatrical style, like the way house lights dim on everyone but Mr. Moustafa as we hang on his words and dive back into his recollections.
This is one of Anderson’s most gorgeous films, too. Shot once again by Robert Yeoman (who’s done every one of Anderson’s movies), there’s not a single wasted or ugly frame here. Whether the camera’s gliding in one of Anderson’s now trademark dolly shots, panning speedily across crowds, or cutting quickly between two people in a conversation, every bit of image is beautifully and carefully rendered. Late in the film, there’s a scene where Zero crashes through the roof of the delivery car for Mendl’s Bakery with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), his true love. We get just a brief instant of them looking at each other before we’re onto the next scene, but even that little moment is staged and decorated like a painting:
So many parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel make this feel like Anderson’s most highly stylized film yet, though that’s not to say it’s airless. It doesn’t have any of the formal stiffness of, say, The Life Aquatic. Part of this is because the film is itself about the nature of memory and creation, so the artifice plays into the construct. But it’s also because Anderson’s script and cast are among his best. The film is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author who was popular in his heyday (the 1920s and 1930s) but who’s since all but disappeared, with his works only seeing wider republication in the past few years. Zweig’s life and work dealt with the disappearance of a gone-away world in the wake of wars that destroyed his homeland, and those trials are fictionalized in the film with fake countries like “Zabrowka” and “Lust” and enemy troops who wear a ZZ pattern on their uniforms. Anderson used elements of multiple Zweig stories to form the basis for his film, and that sense of loss, of people only now realizing as it’s ending that they’ve had a great life, is right in line with Anderson’s explorations of people struggling to put themselves back together. Gustave is driven by passion to pursue excellence, even if he winds up running roughshod over his friends and lovers — how much more Wes Anderson can you get?
Fiennes is magnetic at every moment, too. Gustave is a challenging performance: too abrasive and his trials become unsympathetic, but too tender and he loses the drive that draws others to him. Yet watching Fiennes work, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting the part or carrying it with such skill. He’s capable of rattling off almost impossibly long streams of erudite rumination, but he’s just as skilled at hitting those left-turns into profane incredulity that Anderson throws in like nails on a highway. There’s a moment early in the story when he’s wooing and reassuring the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) that they’ll see each other again, and he glides elegantly from calmly assuaging her fears to sarcastically dismissing everything from her travel plans to her nail polish. Only Fiennes could make Gustave seem funny and sympathetic here, as he does throughout the film.
Anderson also seems to be pulling here from everything he’s ever done or learned. So many moments in The Grand Budapest Hotel feel like spiritual descendants (or antecedents?) to those in his other works. If his earlier films flirted with genres on an individual basis, here he tackles as many as he can: there’s the young love of Rushmore in the tale of Zero and Agatha, and the absurd criminals of Bottle Rocket in a story involving Gustave and a missing painting; there’s the breezy skipping and bombastic score of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the diorama-dressed romance of the recent past from Moonrise Kingdom that’s taken to a further degree in the curios of 1932. The spirit of each film is holed up in a room in the hotel, in this giant crumbling palace that’s the ideal symbol of faded glory and stubborn refusal to die that marks Anderson’s heroes and stories. The film bends back on itself, and on the viewer, at once wholly artificial and perfectly believable.
Which raises the questions: is anything here even real? And if so, to what degree? And does it matter? The answers, approximately, are “yes,” “mostly, in parts,” and “it depends.” Anderson has been typically coy about just what connects with what, referring to Jude Law’s character as the “theoretically fictionalized” version of Wilkinson’s. But everything connects with everything else. These allusions and fictional gymnastics aren’t hidden, but they also don’t come screaming at you, either. Nothing stood out as “fake” or unreal to me when I saw the film. That is, it didn’t explicitly play like the present-day scenes were real, the recent past a little less so, the further past even less, and so on. Rather, the whole elaborate contraption relies on emotional truths within any given context that the fairy tale is always “real” in its way. It’s the way Steve Zissou showing off his boat is real: it’s stagey and artificial, but also one of those magical things you get to do in movies when you breathe life into light on a dark screen. Wilkinson’s older author starts the cycle by saying, “The incidents that follow were described to me exactly as I present them here, and in a wholly unexpected way.” He’s probably making this up, so there’s no reason not to believe him. Anderson is like that. And in fact, he’s a lot like M. Gustave, dashing around and bending the world to his will, even if it’s a world that sometimes seems to have moved on without him. Of Gustave, one character says that, though the debonair concierge was a man out of his own time who didn’t appear to belong, he “sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” Wrapped up in the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I know exactly what he means.