Despite my admiration for his style and wit, even I can admit that many of Wes Anderson’s films have rough edges. Sheer narrative drops trip you into ridges in the mind of the filmmaker that sometimes feels too personal, while jarring stalagmites can obstruct your understanding of the presence and truth of the story.
Anderson smoothened the surfaces in Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, revealing consistent advancements in realism in a complex machine of stories. However it is in the tragicomic The Grand Budapest Hotel that the creator succeeds.
The auteur’s capriciousness and emotion always seemed to fight on the screen – like Disney and Warner Bros competed for screen time in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But now, Anderson has discovered the exact measurements of a tragicomedy. Without losing his sense of self, he modifies his own skill to create perfectly balanced art. He retains the lovable quirked qualities of his worlds, whilst rooting feeling in the real. What we have here is queer without exclusion; aesthetic control without artistic compromise.
The jokes are less abstract than in some of his other work and therefore more accessible for a general audience. As the humour becomes more universal, so does the film’s darkness. It is highly conscious of fascism, war, decay, loss, an era bygone… For all the lush comedy, there is a heavy ache for the multiple tragedies.
The notion of storytelling, and of authorship, is very significant in the film. Who does the story belong to? The film begins as the story of a girl visiting a writer’s grave; she starts to read a book, and the story now belongs to the book’s unnamed narrator (writing in 1985); in the book, he is transcribing a story that Mr Moustafa is telling him (in 1968) of the acquisition of The Grand Budapest Hotel (in 1932) – which, in turn, Anderson had based on the works of Viennese writer Stefan Zweig.
Even reality and fiction overlap as in an M.C. Esher print. The abundant cameos nod towards Anderson’s other films. And it’s not just self-reference; actors from other filmic worlds (including Léa Seydoux, Willem Dafoe and F. Murray Abraham) make appearances. These connections remind us of the maze of storytelling at play here. This is exaggerated further by the fact that the actors all speak in their native accents. So it’s not just art forms: the line between the real world and the world of cinema dissolves.
You see why I mentioned Escher.
To return to that idea of storytelling and possession. Anderson makes clear the importance of the ownership of a story through the character of Zero (so named because he has nothing; “work experience: zero”, “education: zero”, “family : zero”). He has nothing. Except a story.
In the hodgepodge structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson acknowledges that the whole world is just one big story of stories that are so multiple and overlapping that it’s hard to find the significance of an individual experience. However, he is also telling us – quite poetically – that in a seemingly meaningless multivalent world, all we can to do to find meaning is to create our own story that matters.
Whether a story of romanticism, adventure, misadventure, meaningful relationships, socioeconomic commentary, screwball comedy, high art, prison escape, whodunit or all (and probably more I haven’t detailed), you have to refine your story to what you want it to be – your story should be as exquisite and cared for as one of Mendl’s tortes.
Anderson’s idiosyncrasies, I fear, will be taken for granted at this point in his career. However, if he continues to push his talents and the talents of his co-visionaries, and let’s not forget to give credit to the artistic departments he works with, we will be more than happy to claim ownership of his fanciful and touching stories as part of our own.