By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 7, 2014 at 4:00PM
By now, the lines of battle in the Wes Anderson Wars are long since drawn. On one side are his defenders, their muskets inlaid with delicate filigree; across the battlefield, the attackers, their blunt axes choked with mud. But I remain, if not a conscientious objector, an Andersonian flibbertigibbet, warming to some of his films -- "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom" especially -- and left cold by others, including "The Darjeeling Limited" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." (Yes, I know this makes me A Terrible Person. Sorry.) All of Anderson's movies have their moments, but in some they're encased in shellac.
"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is one of Anderson's least films, but also his most revealing -- not an uncommon confluence in auteur-land, where straying too close to their central themes often deprives directors of the ability to spin variations on them. It's so monolithically stylized that the tragic event at its core registers less as an outpouring of blood than red, but it's also about how the flagrantly fake can become real, like the crayon pony fish finally revealed in all its Plasticine splendor.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" has a classic Andersonian protagonist in Ralph Fiennes' M. Gustave, a dapper, detail-oriented concierge in between-the-wars Europe who micromanages every iota of his luxurious pleasure palace. The movie's fictional country of Zubrowka is likewise a creation, this time of Anderson himself, managed with equally fanatical attention to detail. But there's a key difference, or at least there appears to be. Gustave's aestheticism seems like a rear-guard action, an attempt to shore up the walls of the Belle Epoque until the encroaching tide of fascism sweeps them aside forever. But Anderson's looking back from a world where they're long since gone -- in fact, from several of them. The movie nestles Gustave's story within a concentric series of frames, one in 1968, where the Grand Budapest's glory has been buried in brutalist concrete, another in 1985, where European totalitarianism itself is showing signs of wear. It's surely no accident that the three time periods shortly precede major historical upheavals: World War II, the Prague Spring, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The settings naturally bring the films of Max Ophuls and Erich von Stroheim to mind, but the editing rhythms evoke the amiable clunkiness of Mack Sennett two-reelers, and the crude handmade tattoos on Harvey Keitel's bare-chested inmate feel like a tip of the hat to Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante," a surrealist masterwork with a powerful emotional core. (Could the bellboy Zero's moniker also be a tribute to Vigo's "Zero de conduite"? Sure, why not.)
Although Anderson doesn't deal with the Shoah, he salts the film with specific references to Nazism: the hotel lobby filled with fascist emblems deliberately evokes Leni Riefenstahl's "The Triumph of the Will" -- perhaps the most dramatic illustration of aesthetic power turned to odious ends -- and Gustave's prison stripes mirror the outfits worn by prisoners in concentration camps. Gustave's determination to hold fast to his ways emerges not as an act of denial but of defiance, one he knows will put his life at risk.
As Nick Pinkerton points out in his review at Reverse Shot, this is a dangerous business:
To learn that Anderson is making a film that deals with the rise of Fascism in Europe, then, sends up a great big, immaculately crisp red flag.... What Anderson does in "Grand Budapest," however, is avoid diving head-first into his topic, and this delicate reticence allows him to probe deeper.... This isn't to say that there isn't fascism in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but it's a gradually encroaching force on the margins of what we're shown, represented by a slow escalation of casual cruelty.
Indeed, the world of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is, at least for Anderson, uncommonly brutal. Willem Dafoe's uber-Teutonic enforcer throws a cat out a high window just to make a point, and later severs the fingers of a Jewish lawyer (Jeff Goldbum) as he's stalking him to his doom. Although it's not always true in Anderson's movies, the characters in this one pay a heavy, and sometimes tragic, price for their actions, which puts paid to the New Yorker critic David Denby's assertion that the film boils down to "knowingness and formalist whimsy."
We've heard these charges before, of course, with Anderson as well as the Coen brothers (to whose body of work I am, disclosure, far more sympathetic as a whole). Eventually, "serious," more stylistically subdued movies like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men" brought most critics to Joel and Ethan's side, although you can still see some carrying on about how they don't care about their characters, blah blah blah. But if the Coens are foxes, Anderson is a hedgehog: His films are stylistically distinct, but not discrete. You love them all, if to varying degrees, or you don't.
But it's interesting that "Grand Budapest" has turned at least a few of the doubters around. L.A. Weekly's Amy Nicholson has recoiled from his self-awareness in past, but here, it's fitting: "Anderson is wrestling with four layers of fiction. It's fitting: His characters have never sounded like real people, and now he has an excuse for paragraph-length monologues delivered without a blink." HitFix's Guy Lodge, another spoilsport, finds "the overhanging gloom of the already-glimpsed future (and the imminent threat of an Andersonland equivalent of World War II) lending a certain pathos to the playfulness."
In fact, the converts' praise is more insightful than some of Anderson's longtime fans, who luxuriate in the immersive qualities of the film's bespoke world without noticing, or at least mentioning, its morbid subtext. The people who think it's Anderson's masterpiece are, in some cases, the least well-equipped to explain why.