Who could’ve predicted, when Wes Anderson first surfaced in 1996 with the caper comedy Bottle Rocket, that he would become the most polarizing director of his generation? The movie seemed, on paper at least, an artifact of the post-Tarantino indie boom in smirking gunplay and logorrheic dudes. In fact it was the vessel for a new sensibility, dry yet earnest, ironic without being cynical (well, someone grasped its magnitude: Martin Scorsese put it on his decade’s-best list). Rushmore followed, then The Royal Tenenbaums, and suddenly the sensibility swallowed the culture.
Its ubiquity enlarged an impassioned cult—and inspired a no less heated backlash. “It has become a popular critics’ drinking game to think of creative new ways to slag Wes Anderson,” wrote the critic Saul Austerlitz in Another Fine Mess, his 2010 history of American film comedy. What irks the detractors? Many things, really, but most can be grouped under a category called “The Wes Anderson Style.” We all know it: the dollhouse tableaux, the deadpan register, the retro-chic fetishization. Take a frame from any Anderson film; chances are an art-house moviegoer could identify its maker. That very distinctiveness is a big part of the problem for the Anderson critics. Put another way: they don’t like Wes Anderson because he insists on making Wes Anderson movies.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s most ornate movie yet, has occasioned a new round of shots. The New Yorker’s David Denby sniffed, “Knowingness and formal whimsy should not, I think, be confused with art.” Writing in the Village Voice, Stephanie Zacharek was even less amused: “This meticulously appointed dollhouse of a movie just went on and on, making me want to smash many miniature plates of plaster food in frustration.” These and other skeptical notices—though the reviews have been mostly kind—levy the same criticisms that have been slung Anderson’s way for years: that his twee pointillism is as irritating as it is meaningless.
Truth be told, there is a whiff of exhaustion in the arguments over Anderson. It’s past the point where reviews and receipts—The Grand Budapest Hotel’s opening weekend per-theater take was the biggest ever for any live-action film—will change any minds. As a consequence, the debate has been unilluminating, a volley of rehashed judgments. Doubters observe the OCD precision and gilded décor and sigh about solipsism, dismissing Anderson as a crafter of formalist exercises removed from messy experience. Devotees delight in the surfaces of Wes world: the props, costumes, sets, and unheralded pop gems on the soundtrack. A decade-plus of imitations pale and deft—movies like Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and Garden State; music videos by Vampire Weekend and the Decembrists; even commercials—have used the Anderson filmography as a stylebook, with the effect of denuding his style of meaning. So pleasing are the look and feel of Anderson’s movies that it can be a challenge to comprehend they’re not just a repository of hipster taste but are about something. Style, for Anderson, isn’t an affectation but the foundation of who we are.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, style is everything—not least to its central figure, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). He is the legendary concierge of the hotel, situated in the mountains of the fictional republic of Zubrowka. The year is 1932 and Gustave’s story opens with a flurry of activity, as he and his staff prepare for a visit from Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a withered—and wealthy—crone who has been a regular at the hotel for years. It turns out Gustave has been wining and dining Madame D., as he has several of the Budapest’s ancient habitués. Gustave’s behavior would be objectionable if it weren’t in keeping with his ethos: to provide the hotel’s clientele with as much comfort, pleasure, and beauty as he can muster.
Shortly after her visit, Madame D. is found dead in her mansion. Paying his respects at the wake, Gustave walks in on the reading of the will to an audience of relatives—and finds out that he has been bequeathed a priceless painting. The deceased woman’s son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), is outraged and tells Gustave to leave. He does—but not without the painting that is now rightfully his.
It’s in these scenes that we also get to know Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the hotel’s lobby boy. As his moniker implies, Zero is starting from scratch; it’s revealed later that he found himself in Zubrowka after fleeing a distant war that left him penniless and orphaned (one of the movie’s many premonitions of looming tragedy). Gustave takes Zero under his wing and makes him his accomplice. Their theft sets off a daisy chain of adventures involving a prison escape, a ski chase, and—most outlandishly—the convening of a secret society of concierges.
The most incident-filled of Anderson’s movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nested-doll narrative. Gustave’s story unfolds as told by an old Zero (F. Murray Abraham) in 1968. His audience of one is a writer, played by Jude Law, who listens in rapt attention as the two dine in the now-decrepit hotel’s ballroom. That story is in turn relayed to us from 1985 by the writer, now older, played by Tom Wilkinson, explaining into a camera how he came to write his novel The Grand Budapest Hotel. And the whole thing is bookended by a girl’s visit, presumably in the present, to the writer’s gravesite, his book now an acknowledged classic. The ingenious structure underscores the importance of narrative and art as a conduit to the past. The telescoping also suggests just how irrecoverable that past is, a realization that packs a wallop. When the furious whirl-a-gig of the 1932 section comes to a stop, each narrative concludes in rapid succession, and the whole thing ends abruptly. It caught me with a start—and I barely suppressed a sob.
One of Anderson’s greatest creations, Gustave H. is the latest addition in the auteur’s growing gallery of eccentrics. But that’s not quite the right word—exceptionals is more like it. Anderson’s heroes are more than just oddballs who stand apart from their social context (though they are that). They are almost all of them high-achieving, Type A doers. Matt Zoller Seitz, one of our best writers on Anderson, has noted the director’s affinity for J.D. Salinger. But Anderson’s misfits don’t sulk and rail against the phonies in their midst. Instead, they crawl up to the top bunk, dream big, and draw up a seven-step plan to get them somewhere else.
Their non-conformism is represented in myriad ways: in their clothes, their gestures, their locutions, their habits. Independence is expressed through idiosyncrasy. Viewed this way, what seem like too-precious details to some eyes—Max Fischer’s ornate penmanship and red beret in Rushmore, Margot Tenenbaum’s kohl-lined eyes and fur coat in The Royal Tenenbaums, Susie’s record player and collection of stolen library books in Moonrise Kingdom—become imbued with meaning. They’re not just little flourishes: they are ways to assert the self in an indifferent world.
The Grand Budapest Hotel advances this idea in poignant and unexpected ways. In a title card at the end, Anderson pays tribute to the movie’s inspiration: Stefan Zweig. The Austrian writer died in exile in Brazil in 1942, chased away by the war. Throughout the first half of the century, Zweig was a much-loved figure whose novels and essays preserved for posterity a Europe that would soon be in shambles. Zweig’s writings were evidently a model for the film’s fanciful evocation of a bygone time and place. (Indeed, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems an elaboration of this recurring Anderson theme of nostalgia for a vanished past, which also came through vividly in Moonrise Kingdom.)
But Zweig’s life itself was inspiration for Anderson. In his 2007 book Cultural Amnesia, Clive James wrote that the Austrian author’s life and work tell “the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair.” Anderson has told that story in miniature in his movies, but Gustave H. is its most direct, and direst, evocation—a vision of the aesthete striving for excellence even as the walls are about to cave in. (Perhaps the most haunting shot in Anderson’s filmography is of a pensive Gustave, lying awake in his sleeper car on a nighttime train ride.) Summing up his dear friend’s life, Zero quotes something Gustave once said to him, an echo of Clive James’s line: Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” With that phrase, Anderson makes a subtle connection between style and the political. Extinguish the idiosyncratic and the exceptional, and you extinguish culture.
It’s not too much to suggest that Anderson sees something of himself in Gustave H. The critic Richard Brody calls The Grand Budapest Hotel “the closest thing to a credo” that Anderson has made yet, and he’s right. Maestros of their domains, both Anderson and Gustave are stylists of the highest order. More than a curated collection of the director’s likes, Anderson’s cinema is an ongoing exploration of ideas about identity and humanism. In a smart post, The American Conservative’s Noah Millman once wrote of Anderson, “If he makes a movie that exposes his soul—what lies behind the persona that we already know—I’ll want to see it.” It’s a lovely, ardent sentiment, but I would submit that’s what Anderson’s been doing this whole time.