There’s always been an aura of sadness to Wes Anderson’s films. Most of that gets credited to the detailed worlds and settings he creates that seem set in some nearby universe that just hasn’t quite caught up to ours, a world where couriers deliver notes, music is played on Victrolas, trains are still an acceptable form of travel and love is pure and untainted by technology, rumor or innuendo. Nostalgia is the culprit, and Anderson knows oh so well how to bow that particular fiddle.
What Anderson’s films really reveal is a desire to return to a time before lost innocence. We see this starting with Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, in the form of Owen Wilson’s Dignan. Dignan’s lived a sheltered, suburban life, and now, as a 20-something, sees nothing he that thrills him in the future his past has created. He refuses to surrender to ennui and seeks meaning in crime. He sees honor and passion among thieves that he doesn’t see in the landscaped lawns and garden parties that surround him. It’s a romantic notion of a fool or a child playing gangster on the grade school playground, but Dignan is the kind of fool we wish we could be, so we are more than happy to go along for the ride.
That sort of shedding of innocence is common to all of Anderson’s works, whether it’s Max Fischer in Rushmore trying to dig in and hold on to the school that makes him feel close to his lost mother, or Sam’s and Suzy’s 12-year-old love story in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson’s films give us hope that, even if it’s only for a few fleeting moments, we’ll jump around on an isolated beach dancing to our favorite song or finally get around to writing that stage adaptation of Goodfellas.
Does The Grand Budapest Hotel mark an end to the hope? In many ways, it’s straight out of the Anderson playbook. A once-great, five-star resort hotel is now down on its luck, a faded image of a better time, out of place in the modern world. The characters are unique and quirky – Gustave, the concierge who runs the Grand Budapest, a consumate professional and womanizer of old women; Zero, an immigrant looking to find a place in a world completely unfamiliar to him; etc. – and the action is madcap and frequent.
But Budapest lacks the sunny upside of Anderson’s other flicks. Sure, Max Fischer is forced to leave his beloved Rushmore, but it’s in part because he no longer needs the idealized, isolated institution. Max has found his tribe, weird and varied as they may be, and now he’s ready to face the world. The orphan Sam is no longer cast out and seeking someone to love him, needing to run away to get closer to … something, anything. Someone found him, quite by accident, and loves Sam and is willing to provide him a stability he’s never had.
Budapest‘s end, on the other hand, provides its bleakest moments. Yes, Zero finds a family to belong to after his parents and brothers and sisters are killed in a war they wanted no part of. But Zero’s wife and child die at the hands of a disease that years later is commonly curable. Yes, Gustave finally gets to join the ranks of the wealthy women he has so often pursued, but other than not running the Grand Budapest anymore, his life changes little. His snobbery, so often a source of amusement or even comfort throughout the film, ends up getting him killed by the latest band of war makers to pop up in his corner of the world.
Is this a change in Anderson? Has some of his hope died, whether through personal experience or what he perceives as a flaw in the world around him? It could, of course, be a one-off, that these tragic endings serve this particular story, and, as such, that’s the course Anderson charted.
However, Anderson’s films always feel so personal that it’s hard to believe this is a random occurrence or just a part of the story that needed to be told. It’s such a variance that his next film should be the most anticipated of his career. Will it be a return to form? Or has Anderson now evolved like his characters, ready to move on to face a bigger, badder world?
Stay tuned. I will be.