Wes Anderson films share a particular and peculiar flavour. Though subjects range from deep-sea divers to inept thieves, the films have a consistent tone. They are often shot in flat, painterly compositions interspersed with choreographed dolly tracks: the introductory pans in Moonrise Kingdom gliding through Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, for example. They have a preoccupation with lives of privilege – notice the easy-going product placement of Louis Vuitton in Darjeeling and of Prada in Castello Cavalcanti – and can sometimes resemble Vanity Fair covers. The third act slow-mo walk; soft English rock; home-made special effects; the wonderful Kumar Pallana; Futura titles, often in yellow. Most of all, there’s the language of Anderson’s scripts. Florid, formal, clipped and affected, much of the delivery is like a reading from an erudite, sweary story-book.
A final Anderson trope is the undercutting of so much sugary decoration with tragedy. I’ve had a rough year, dad”. “I love you, but you have no idea what you’re talking about”. “I can’t come home, Grace, I’m an adult”. It’s an important reminder of how self-aware the director is, and a balancing bitter note. Of all the director’s idiosyncrasies, I like this tendency best, as it excuses and explains the rest. Life, on Planet Wes as well as here, is absurd and mannered and funny, and then it’s devastatingly sad.
People tend to have personal tolerance levels for this ‘Anderson ambience’. When it doesn’t work, the style can slip from art into artifice. It gets hollow. Life Aquatic is my least favourite Anderson film because I think its heart gets crowded out by well-meaning paraphernalia. When tragedy struck I was too bedazzled to care much. The Grand Budapest Hotel skates perilously close to the same mistake, but then – with a cheeky flourish and a delicious fake-out – refuses to have any misery at all.
Devoid of melodramatic ballast, the film is free to revel in silliness. All other Anderson bingo calls are present, but Budapest never once takes itself seriously. It turns out this is hilarious. Ralph Fiennes is superb, twittering through the torrential script with excellent comic timing. The plot is absurd, but the characters all seem to know this. Countless tropes are turned up to eleven: there are about four otiose framing narratives, two secret societies and an impeccably over-the-top prison break. One German sentence is the only concession to the cast’s “Zubrowkan” extraction, so American, Irish and R.P. accents heighten the farce. Even Hitchcock is parodied, with an abruptly violent rejoinder to the museum chase scene in Torn Curtain.
The unabashed nonsense is held together with a wonderful, and unusually backgrounded, score. It’s prevented from feeling too childish (though the film remains reminiscent of Fantastic Mr Fox )by spouts of McDonagh-esque violence and more than a smattering of “fuck”s, delivered most joyfully by Fiennes. But though slyly modern on sexuality, Budapest does irritate with its serious deficit of female characters; recourse to the unenlightened historical setting would be, I think, a lazy excuse.
Moonrise Kingdom succeeded because its hand was steadied by a real emotional core. With Budapest, the director pendulum-swings to untrammelled pastiche instead, and produces something almost as good, and twice as fun. Go!