Detractors of Wes Anderson accuse him of being too droll, too whimsical, too artificial, too, basically, Wes Anderson-y. Rather than adjusting his extremely specific style, he was made his most Wes Anderson-ian film yet, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and it is utterly glorious.
His films are not realistic. There are plenty of directors working today that make sensitive, naturalistic treatments of life as it is truly lived. Anderson simply is not one of them. Rather, the story of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is outsized, unbelievable, and complexly constructed. As such, it is the perfect material for Wes Anderson. No one makes films that look like his.
Most of his sets functions as dollhouses, from the mansion in “The Royal Tenenbaums” to the boat in “The Life Aquatic.” Again, the Grand Budapest Hotel is such a construction, literally a meticulous miniature for the long shots of its wedding cake façade. Within its walls, once more, Anderson creates a completely artificial world.
Only in this case, it is even more artificial than his past films, and therefore works even better.
In an invented European country in an invented past, a genteel, resourceful concierge controls every minute aspect of life in his hotel. Perhaps he’s a surrogate for Anderson himself. Gustave H. is hilariously portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, and he’s particularly affecting when a lapse flashes past in his façade, usually a well-deployed profanity, or a display of genuine emotion.
As the world around them prepares for war, Gustave H. and his team of lobby boys keep things flowing smoothly in their luxurious environs, and it is business as usual as he services the emotional and erotic needs of the elderly, wealthy women around him. When his most wealthy companion of all dies suddenly, Gustave H. is plunged into the lion’s den of her scheming, murderous relatives.
At his side is Zero, a refugee lobby boy who learns everything his mentor has to offer, all the while conducting a romance with the enchanting Agatha, a young baker at the town’s most beloved bakery, Mendel’s. Together, they go on an improbable adventure to clear Gustave H.’s name and secure his inherited fortune, through fortified prisons, remote mountain monasteries, and an international chain of hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys.
This entire adventure is told to a writer decades later, portrayed by Jude Law, who himself goes on to write the story down, which later becomes one of the most treasured literary works of his country. This is not a realistic stream of consciousness story, but a marvelous, unlikely tale.
When photography was invented, painting changed forever because we didn’t need to rely on a realistic, accurate painting to know what a person or place truly looked like. With more and more people capturing their own reality in millions of digital proliferations, Anderson is welcome to stand apart and build a tiny, perfect island of unreality, and move his dolls through it as he sees fit.
Gustav H. and Zero are entirely self-constructed, self-invented, and as such, they can be whatever they want. The world of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is like that, too. However affected their actions, however, I must argue that they are still moving, still capable of capturing and generating emotion. Anderson’s gorgeous sets and famously meticulous props do not hinder his actors, they enable them.
And all of his films are not, as many claim, the same, just because Bill Murray is always in them. There are certain recurring themes and tropes and aesthetics, but each is distinct from the other and, above all, they are all distinct from any other film you will see. And so much the better.