“Every time I make a movie I’m doing something different,” says Wes Anderson on a recent afternoon.
Whether he really believes this, or merely wishes it were true, is impossible to tell under the circumstances. Anderson has been answering reporters’ questions for hours as part of a press junket in support of his new film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which opens in the Boston area on Friday. If by the end of the day he has grown too tired or bored to discuss the single most common criticism of his work — that, quite simply, his movies are all very similar to each other, both visually and emotionally — he can be forgiven for it.
But it is true that Anderson, who is 44, has a style so instantly recognizable that one doesn’t really know whether to be profoundly impressed with the coherence of his vision, or a little embarrassed at his reliance on what could uncharitably be considered a bundle of trademark tics and tricks. Dressed in a burgundy crew-neck sweater, tweed pants, and a red-and-white candy-striped oxford shirt, Anderson dismisses the charge — which gets leveled seemingly every time he puts out a new film — that his aesthetic has started to border on self-parody. “What I hear is just somebody saying something not very nice about my work,” he says. “I have no wish to engage in it.”
The new movie could plausibly be called his most “Wes Anderson-y” yet. Set in a fictional Eastern European country and starring Ralph Fiennes as Gustave, a finicky, vain, but admirably disciplined concierge at a luxury hotel, it’s built around a madcap plot involving the mysterious death of a wealthy old woman, played by Tilda Swinton.
Over the course of the movie, the preternaturally meticulous Gustave develops a friendship with a young man named Zero, played by Tony Revolori, who becomes his apprentice at the hotel — and his partner in crime — after Gustave recognizes in him a deep respect for order, efficiency, and precision in the name of excellent service. In Anderson’s hands, attention to detail like theirs is imbued with a kind of honor, as if to suggest there is nothing on Earth more noble than a humble worker who takes his job seriously and doesn’t cut corners.
The majesty of what Anderson has proven himself capable of over the course of his seven previous films — most recently, “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) — is on full display in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: the gorgeous colors, the impeccably framed shots of cartoonish characters wearing delightful costumes, the thrillingly sudden 90-degree turns of his camera, the clipped dialogue that manages to be both funny and melancholy despite sounding nothing like actual conversation. But the film, which as Swinton put it while promoting the movie, seems to orbit around a “mish-mash of glorious details,” also serves as a reminder that charming flourishes, even when there are a great many of them, aren’t enough to carry a work of art. Swinton was trying to pay Anderson a compliment, of course — which is exactly why “Grand Budapest” should force even the most dedicated Anderson fan to wonder why he doesn’t seem to feel compelled to try some new rhythms.
Anderson, for his part, claims not to think about the extent to which his movies are alike, or even what they might have in common. “I just do one movie at a time,” he says, sitting with his legs crossed in a room at the Crosby Street Hotel, in Manhattan. “When I’m doing a movie, it’s a huge undertaking — and I’m not really thinking about it as being in dialogue with my other work. I’m just doing the one movie.”
And yet the movies are in dialogue with each other. This is not just because the same actors show up in so many of them, or because of how consistently they feature whip pans and those neatly centered, symmetrically framed shots — it’s because at the core of most if not all of them are characters with highly developed and idiosyncratic visions of what the world should look like. No doubt, Anderson identifies with the character of Gustave, just as he probably identified with Sam from “Moonrise Kingdom,” and with Max from “Rushmore” — who all take pleasure and find solace in creating and decorating their own worlds just so.
Anderson, of course, does the same thing when he’s making movies, which take place in self-contained universes that follow none of the rules of our own. According to Adam Stockhausen, production designer on “Grand Budapest” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson differs from other directors he’s worked with in that he personally designs every shot and plans every camera move in advance. This means that creating scenery for Anderson is an utterly different undertaking from, say, doing the same job for Steve McQueen, whose “12 Years a Slave” Stockhausen also worked on. With “12 Years,” Stockhausen says in a recent phone interview, the object was to make every piece of scenery feel real, which required him and the set-decorating team — who received an Oscar nomination — to make objects that were “finished on all sides, so you could walk around them, stand on top of them, and look underneath them.”
Creating environments for Anderson, on the other hand, is an exercise in embracing artifice: When shooting a train pulling into a station, Stockhausen says, he didn’t have to actually create the station, because he knew ahead of time that Anderson only wanted to show it from one particular angle. The world we see when we watch a Anderson movie, in other words, literally could not be viewed from any perspective but his.
One of the best gags in “Grand Budapest” takes place during a chase scene inside a museum. There is a sign in the lobby that says closing time is in 15 minutes. Then, one minute in, we see that the person running the front desk has replaced it: closing time is now in 14 minutes. It’s hard not to wonder if Anderson kind of wishes museums actually worked like this — whether, if it were up to him, the world we all live in would be a little more precise, a little more perfectly arranged.
Anderson, sitting in a rather garish oversized houndstooth armchair most definitely not of his own choosing, says this is not the case. “These movies have a lot to do with me personally, but they don’t have to do with what I want the world to be like,” he says. “They have to do with what I want these stories to be like.”
But the story — more accurately, the plot — that is embedded in “Grand Budapest” feels beside the point. Instead, the focus is on the hotel itself: a beautiful relic of a once-proud place that has fallen into disrepair after years of Communist rule. The new concierge who has replaced Gustave, played by Jason Schwartzman, doesn’t take much pride in his work — a fact that Zero, Gustave’s former apprentice, regards with resignation while visiting the hotel as a grown man (played by F. Murray Abraham), even as he longs for the old days and revels in telling one of the few guests still staying there about how properly the place used to be run.
All told, it’s an argument for seeing vision, taste, and style — the ability to create and maintain a world all of your own — as almost moral qualities. What higher calling could there be, Anderson seems to be asking, than channeling everything that’s special about you, every intuition and preoccupation you have, into conjuring a place — or a work of art — that exists to enchant others?
In this light, knocking Anderson for being formulaic in his filmmaking arguably amounts to a cynical misunderstanding of what it means for an artist to have a voice, a point of view, a set of signature moves.
“Even though I know there are devices I’m drawn to, or techniques that I use that not everyone will use — these are the things I’m interested in,” Anderson says. “I have my own thing I want to do.”
He says, finally, “I like making these movies.”