Wes Anderson’s films evoke an unusual feeling, entirely separate from any other filmmaker working today and impossible to imitate. Via simple, splashy colors and lo-fi special effects, Anderson constructs his unusual worlds as though trying to evoke nostalgia for things which never existed: a high school experience that no one ever had in Rushmore, a Jacques Cousteau who never lived in The Life Aquatic. There’s something a bit childlike about it all, the impression that one is being told a fairy tale or bedtime story even when the content is considerably more adult. That style is refined still further in Anderson’s newest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which retains the half-nostalgia feeling but advances will beyond fairy-tale territory. It may well be his most mature film made to date.
The film is ostensibly a novel: a writer (Tom Wilkinson) has written a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel in which his younger alter ego (Jude Law) visits the titular hostel and is told the story of its origins by its owner (F. Murray Abraham). The origin, a twisty-turny sort of thriller featuring hotel manager Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), then dominates most of the film’s running time.
That framing device is a work of brilliance, for it allows Anderson to drop his own style of humor into a nightmarish version of the pre-Nazi 1930s without creating any jarring tonal shifts. The fact that this is all a story within a story within a novel allows for brutish fascists to share scenes with a comically ineffectual military officer played by Edward Norton. Gustave’s love of poetry can be a snobbish affectation that practically begs for a punchline, or it can be the only civilized response to the threat of violence from the fascists (as represented by a snarling Adrian Brody), and both of these are entirely appropriate in the scenes where they occur.
In fact, the tone that is created with The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably the darkest of any Anderson film. It’s certainly the most violent, as the thug played by Willem Dafoe earns the picture’s R rating all by himself. The typically dry Anderson wit gains added power when it follows these moments, reminding the audience that even if it is “quirky” or “twee” or whatever other adjectives might be applied by Anderson dissenters, to let it die out entirely is to open a space for the fascists to enter.
Most of all, by establishing the film as a novel, Anderson is able to comment on how important fiction is for all of us. Gustave has a monumental impact of the lives of people around him, impact that lasts beyond the length of his author’s life. Anderson expertly balances humor and violence to keep the audience invested in his fate, even while reminding via glances at the Jude Law character that it’s all just fiction. That’s the effect that the stories of Stefan Zweig (credited with inspiring the film) had on Wes Anderson, and that’s the effect that Anderson would like to have on his audience. He succeeds beyond even his own ambitious dreams.