Wes Anderson movies are easy to spot. The dialogue is always snappy, the characters always quirky, the shots always somewhere between high art and wallpaper pizzazz. In other words, his style is striking, and what he chooses to shoot and how he chooses to move his camera — his content, if you will — is mesmerizing, alluring and picturesque all at the same time.
About the only negative thing you can really say about a filmmaker as technically and aesthetically gifted as Anderson is that perhaps his movies look too good — too stylized. They’re so visually impressive that it’s possible to completely overlook whatever emotional depth there is to find. It’s a criticism that remains relevant for even his latest objective success: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Framed within a frame within a frame, the film is a fictional account of a fictional hotel in some fictional Nazi-era area of Eastern Europe. The hotel itself is an elaborate alpine ski resort impeccably run by a certain Monsieur Gustave H., played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is an incredibly cultured (borderline arrogant) man — someone who panders to his fabulously wealthy clients while maintaining his duties with inimitable grace and professionalism. But following the murder of one of his favorite clients, Gustave must flee the Grand Budapest and race across the countryside to clear his name.
As with all Anderson films, there’s a bit more going on here. Drawing a parallel to Nazi Europe, “Grand Budapest” never shies away from painting an idyllic picture with shadowy edges. The looming threat of the Nazi-inspired ZZ informs most of the action here, even if all the officers are incredibly incompetent. Still, war is coming to the country, and for all its insistence on murder and literary grandstanding, this is a film that in many ways actively mocks fascism while simultaneously indicting the ritzy society that led to its rise.
Little wonder, given Anderson’s artistic sensibilities. He’s a director who has never shied away from detailed set pieces and questionably ostentatious mise-en-scène. Though his first few films were relatively tame in this regard, Anderson dove into left field with his animated caper tale, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which eschewed traditional hand-drawn or CGI animation for a stop-motion look that leaned heavily on personally crafted models. Anderson returns to this choice with “Grand Budapest.” The result? A clearly fake yet imaginatively believable work that smacks of a storybook literally brought to life.
That said, we always run into an issue of personal connectivity. In the case of “Grand Budapest,” we absolutely pull for Gustave and Zero (his valet) as they navigate one treachery after another. But we don’t feel anything truly akin to poignancy until the very end of the film. Otherwise, it’s just another aesthetic tour de force. Without the frills of excess emotion.
Perhaps this a little harsh to say. In terms of raw feelings, we can taste a little melancholy and nostalgia all throughout the film. This pays off when Gustave’s story is complete. Sure, we might not shed a tear or feel our breath quicken, but we get swept away by something. Until then, Anderson’s artifice feels distracting.
Not that we expect a glut of emotion. “Grand Budapest” itself never pretends to be anything more than what it is: a decorative poster hanging on the wall — covering a hole that, if followed, leads to some interminable darkness. Death and depression run beneath this film in raging rivulets, yet it’s so tempting to look beyond all that when confronted by Anderson’s visual beauty.
That doesn’t mean we should beat ourselves over the head trying to decipher all the little depressing nuances of a film like this. Rather, like the film’s Author character, we should imbibe the story exactly as is — listening and watching and never forgetting to take a moment to hold our breath at the sheer beauty of it all. I doubt Anderson would have it any other way.