NEW YORK - A new Wes Anderson film arrives like a magician's latest illusion, greeted by questions of not just "How does he do it?" but "What is it, exactly?"
Anderson, like few other directors, has perpetually kept critics and moviegoers off-balance with his idiosyncratic blend of orchestrated whimsy, deep-rooted melancholy and deadpan slapstick. When he privately screened his second film, "Rushmore," for Pauline Kael, the rarely uncertain critic responded, "I don't know what you've got here, Wes." Lacking a more sufficient barometer, his movies are typically first judged on a scale of how "Wes Anderson-y" it is.
On that count, his latest registers about a 10. "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which opened Friday, is ultimately about a fastidious concierge named M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori), he takes on as a protege at an ornate alpine resort in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. After a multilayered framing device guided across eras by characters played by Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson and F. Murray Abraham, the film presents a portrait of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1930s, just as the rise of fascism (the SS here is the ZZ) is bringing an end to a refined way of life.
Gustave, who efficiently runs the hotel with old-world elegance but an unapologetic unscrupulousness (he has a habit of bedding old widows), is twice called in the film "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."
It's a caper, with a stolen painting, a murderous stalking scene (taken straight out of Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain"), an elaborate prison break and a gun fight. There are the old-fashioned hotel accoutrements of an elevator seat, a bathhouse, comically small servants' quarters and a funicular. It's an early 20th century playhouse for Anderson - a dream of a genteel Europe that never quite existed, imagined by someone steeped in movies (Ernst Lubitsch and `30s Hitchcock, in particular) and the stories of early 1900s Viennese author Stefan Zweig (a major inspiration on the film).
Anderson's eighth film also may be for the 44-year-old director the definitive statement about his kind of movie reality. With miniatures (like the exterior of the hotel) mixed in and a ski chase scene filmed with figurines, its plainly artificial environs are crowded with realistically emotional characters.
"When I see a James Bond movie, I see a great deal of artificiality," Anderson said in a recent interview. "It's a style of special effects that's just very familiar to us right now and we accept as a version of reality.
"There's no layer of artiness about it," he says. "Not that I'm deeply opposed to it, but just for my own work, I'm not particularly drawn to that way of working. I like to see if we can experiment with old-fashioned techniques that I've always really liked. I love miniatures and different kinds of animations - things that are like magic tricks. I'm drawn to those. I feel like they have a certain charm. And I just sort of make an assumption that we all know that this is a kind of a concoction."
Anderson doesn't just delight in antiquated film techniques. His films - his concoctions - are in many ways odes to analog worlds: the record player of "Moonrise Kingdom," the book jackets of "The Royal Tenenbaums," the portraits of "Rushmore."
Many of his protagonists are quixotic champions of bygone worlds, dauntlessly trying to keep something old and beautiful alive, or at least some romantic idea of it. As Max pleads in "Rushmore," "I saved Latin!"
In "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a narrator says of Gustav: "His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with a remarkable grace."
The same, of course, could be said of Anderson, who has a serene but down-to-earth way about him, more self-deprecating than precious.
The film depicts the slow decline of a once great hotel across the years, which he notes "feels a bit like tragedy." But the Texas-native, who currently lives in New York but spent recent years in Europe, says he's not pining away at life in some prior era.
"My experience as a foreigner in Europe has always been much more being dazzled by: There's an old world that is still there," he says.
Zweig, however, killed himself in 1942, leaving a note that lamented the self-destruction of "my spiritual home, Europe." "We haven't been through these kind of things," says Anderson. "We would have to fake that level of cynicism."
Anderson doesn't hold the past so dear that he doesn't revel in a line of comically antiquated language like "Gunther was slayed in the catacombs," or connect phrases like "Prussian grippe" and "candy ass." Fiennes, who drew from the debonair Austrian actor Anton Walbrook ("The Red Shoes") relished the dialogue, sped up like a `30s comedy.
"Nothing prepared me for the musical brio and sort of sprightliness of the film," says Fiennes. "I relied upon Wes as a guide. He had written the screenplay, but he has quite an ear for speaking the delivery, the timing. He has a musically precise ear."
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" was shot in Gorlitz, Germany, with a converted department store for the hotel interior. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, working with Anderson for the third time, said as detailed as Anderson is in his complicated shots, his process isn't "predetermined," but open to inspirations and ideas that come out of working on location.
"What he does is very serious work telling stories. He happens to have a strong visual style," says Stockhausen. "That's just his vocabulary."