I can still remember where I was — and, more importantly, who I was — the first time I saw Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. The year was 2001; I was a teenager, working at an unpaid internship at my Ohio hometown’s sole “literary center.” I had no friends, no boyfriend for most of the time and only one goal: I was going to find a way out of Ohio and into New York City, so that I could be an honest-to-God Intellectual.
And when The Royal Tenenbaums came out in theaters, I watched it at least three times. At the time, it felt like a revelation. The clipped, elegant mid-century-style dialogue was beautiful. The micro-managed, candy-colored onset visuals were excitingly weird. The meticulous specificity of the characters — the way they behaved less like people than like cartoons, exhibiting the same narrow range of personality traits and wearing the same outfits in every panel — seemed like a way to tell a story while calling self-deprecating attention to that story’s artifice.
To me, everything in the film was aspirationally upper-class: Sure, my extended family lived in trailers and worked the night shift at grocery stores, but thanks to Joan Didion and Woody Allen (and now to Anderson), I knew that real smart people, the kind I hoped to convincingly imitate someday, were all rich and elegantly disenchanted about their richness. The movie appeared to invoke about ten different historical eras, cherry-picking only the trendiest fashion statements from each one. And the music! Why, I myself listened to this strange and obscure band called “the Velvet Underground!” Wes Anderson seemed, startlingly, to understand that very band’s appeal — and, more broadly, the appeal of the entire intensively twee and gentrified-Brooklyn‑y world he portrayed in his films.
It wasn’t just me. When I moved to New York the following autumn, I went to a Halloween parade where I saw about two dozen different Richie and/or Margot Tenenbaums. For a while, Anderson seemed like a watchword for a certain brand of ambitious, discontent young adult. You would throw out his name in conversations with new friends or suggest seeing his films on dates; a proper appreciation of The Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore was verification that someone was worth your time, proof that they, like, got it. Whatever the hell “it” was. Now, as an adult woman, I have a growing suspicion that the “it” we were all so eager to grab hold of was just another term for “being an insufferable, pretentious teenager.”
Anderson’s status-obsessed, surface-worshiping approach to storytelling was useful if you were pretty status-obsessed and surface-focused yourself. But it’s curdled over the years into something unappetizing. We grew up, but Wes Anderson never did.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s latest effort, repeats all the tropes and quirks I once loved, intensifying them to the point of obnoxiousness. The movie’s dialogue has gone beyond “stylized” to impossibly mannered — someone mentions “neurasthenia” and “Arabian baths” within the first ten minutes, and it only gets fancier from there on in. Though the Tenenbaum home or the interiors of The Life Aquatic sometimes suggested dollhouses, the Grand Budapest Hotel is actually portrayed by a dollhouse in several shots. Visuals that used to be detailed and meticulous are now fussy and obsessive: Would-be dramatic moments falter and fade into the background, as the viewer’s eye is drawn away by the filmmaker’s distracting and nearly compulsive need to arrange every shot into a Rubik’s cube of interlocking rectangles.
And Anderson has stuck to his specific variety of status-conscious humor: Rarely funny-ha-ha, usually funny-someone-is-less-cool-than-I-am. At the showing I attended, people actually giggled like a bunch of scandalized seven-year-olds at characters who said the word “shit.” I doubt that moviegoers actually think the word “shit” is funny, given that we’ve all said it when spilling something on a new sweater. (Not that any of Wes Anderson’s characters would dare to spill something on themselves; their outfits are too fabulous.) But saying a dirty word, within the fetishistic upper-crust context of an Anderson movie, makes you sound crude, stupid, different. To be precise, it makes you sound poor.
Somehow, Wes Anderson has become the Niles Crane of contemporary cinema. He’s transformed himself from an oddball perfectionist into a snooty, pompous fussbudget. Though he still arranges gorgeous color palettes, striking geometric frames, and era-blending visions that are part French New Wave, part Vogue photo shoot, when he sticks his characters into those shots, he barely even lets them move. Human flesh and noise and body language — the stuff that most of us are used to thinking of as “drama,” and the reason we refer to films colloquially as “movies” — have become unwelcome intrusions in Wes Anderson’s relentlessly pretty and static universe.
The subject matter of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a strikingly bad match for that aesthetic. For one thing, it’s the most violent Anderson movie I can recall: There are serial killers, gunfights, jailbreaks, dismemberments and Nazi invasions on offer. And yet, these action scenes are shot with all the raw, kinetic, pulse-pounding passion of an episode of Antiques Roadshow. If you’re looking for the frantic, swinging handheld camera work of the fight scenes in Rushmore or Tenenbaums, you won’t find it here, where the camera stands stock still in an artfully located position and refuses to so much as zoom. And while sex is invoked and even pretty graphically depicted — an Egon Schiele painting of two women fucking plays a pivotal role — it’s deployed as a joke, inviting us to gasp and smirk like middle-schoolers who’ve uncovered a stash of Playboys. In fact, Anderson has become a strangely virginal filmmaker in the years since his lovely passing-a-sheet-over-the-lovers scene in Bottle Rocket. Actual eroticism, actual sex, simply wouldn’t work for him anymore: There’s too much sweat and spit and un-choreographed, unflattering facial expression involved. The actors would have to move around too much; they’d have to take off their fabulous outfits.
This unwillingness to ground his characters in reality, or in anything other than carefully selected references and raw visual appeal, is Anderson’s signature “irony” at work. When Anderson invokes a fictionalized version of Nazism, he does so in order to give us a beleaguered, good-hearted soldier played by Edward Norton. He also makes sure the régime’s fascist logo — a thunderbolt-edged “ZZ” that viewers will be unable to look at without mentally filling in the “Top” — is a darling shade of Easter-egg pink. That’s meant to be incongruous and silly, and in the abstract, it is. In practice, though: Six million Jews died in the real-life version of Anderson’s constructed totalitarianism. Should the Holocaust really be cute?
And as Anderson has become more and more willfully alienated from humanity, his female characters have been the ones to suffer most. Anderson wasn’t always bad with women. Think of the great scene in Rushmore when the teenage anti-hero Max Fischer — the kind of kid who routinely brags about all the imaginary “hand jobs” he’s getting from women — tries to force a kiss on an adult teacher played by Olivia Williams. She shoves him away, hard, and she’s both enraged and horrified: “What do you really think is going to happen between us? Do you think we’re going to have sex?” He demurs, calls her cheap. She pauses, sizes him up, and rips him in half: “How would you describe it to your friends? Would you say you’d fingered me? Or maybe I could give you a hand job. Would that put an end to all of this?” He can’t answer her. For one second, the cute story we think we know falls apart, and we see Max for who he really is: a stalker and creep who’s been running on borrowed misogynist swagger.
But Anderson has never written anything since to match that scene, and he seems uninterested in trying. These days, the writer-director can book an actress as undeniably watchable as Tilda Swinton. But Grand Budapest Hotel uses the decidedly unelderly Swinton as an 84-year-old woman who’s being sexually exploited — apparently humorously, according to the film — by Budapest’s hero. In one of Swinton’s precisely two scenes, she’s a joke, fluttering and swooning like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers picture; in the second, she doesn’t even get that much to do, because she’s playing a goddamned corpse. Shortly after her death, her erstwhile lover of 19 years, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), refers to her as a “cheaper cut” of meat thanks to her age, with younger women being “fillet.”
The only other female character with a major role in the plot, a baker played by Saoirse Ronan, is described by Gustave, unironically, as beautiful “because of her purity.” Ronan’s plot function is pretty simple: After learning in an early flash-forward that she will die tragically, audiences are invited to spend the rest of the movie trying to guess who will bump her off. So for those keeping track: According to the modern Anderson, women are either old, devalued “cheaper cuts” whose sexuality and need for love is a hilarious joke, or young, beautiful, “pure” virgins. But either way, they’re dead meat.
I don’t want to feel this way. I remember how much I used to adore Anderson’s work, and it’s rarely personally or professionally fulfilling to lose faith in an artist. On paper, Wes Anderson still checks all the right boxes: I like filmmakers with strongly defined, highly individual aesthetics. I like spectacle that serves no other purpose but to be beautiful. I like wordy screenwriting and structural innovation; all that beautiful old-timey talk about neurasthenia ought to captivate me, and the multi-layered flashbacks and six-act structure of Grand Budapest Hotel should be refreshing. But somehow, the thrill is gone. Though Anderson’s hyper-aestheticized strangeness once felt like an invitation into a slightly more interesting universe, it now feels pretentious and suffocating, like being served a sumptuous dinner by a man who won’t stop criticizing your table manners.
It also feels strangely cruel: Anderson has no room for raw emotion, for un-self-conscious passion or pain, for anything resembling psychological depth. He treats people like one more set of pretty objects, purchased and arranged to fill out the requisite amount of space within a camera shot. This is now a man who can make a film about the looming pseudo-Holocaust and devote most of his attention to shots of elaborately iced pastries.
Either Anderson has changed, or I have. But no matter which one it is, Budapest Hotel feels like the end of something. His signature style has been intensified and exaggerated to its breaking point. From this point forward, Anderson can either stagnate, or let go of that aesthetic and try to come up with something new. I hope it’s the latter: If he ever got over trying to make Wes Anderson movies, I think Wes Anderson might be capable of making a really great film.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.