Even if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson movie, you’ve probably seen the American Express commercial he made in 2004, which was ubiquitous on American TV: between takes on a movie set the hip young director marches around giving instructions to his actors, noting the makeup job on a geisha character, conferring with his prop man on a suitable weapon for a scene (“Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?”), and putting a $15,000 helicopter rental on his AmEx before he seats himself on a camera crane and floats heavenward. This giddy episode always reminds me of that old Orson Welles saw, in which he referred to the RKO studio lot as “the biggest train set a boy ever had.” The primary appeal of Anderson’s movies is this very sense of a spoiled kid having the time of his life.
Over the years Anderson’s cult following has built steadily, though his filmography has had its ups and downs. After three strong comedies fueled by adolescent angst and family dysfunction (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums), he apparently exhausted whatever personal issues he had to rake over and began spinning ever-more-fanciful tales of little oddball communities in exotic locales (the oceanographers of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the brothers exploring India by train in The Darjeeling Limited, the 12-year-old sweethearts and their families on the mythical island of New Penzance in Moonrise Kingdom). With each new feature his eccentric visual style becomes more pronounced even as his characters seem flatter and more cartoonish. Anderson’s movies can be wonderfully funny and fun to look at, but they often give me the feeling that I’m watching a grown man play with dolls.
The Grand Budapest Hotel transpires in another mythical land, the former Republic of Zubrowka, and Anderson uses stop-motion animation to portray the hotel (which looks like a giant pink wedding cake) and its mountainous environs (serviced by steep funicular railway cars). There’s an elaborate narrative frame involving an author (Tom Wilkinson) who remembers his 1968 visit to the hotel and his dinner conversation there with the elderly owner, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). But the core of the story is Moustafa’s reminiscence of his days in the 1930s as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a dapper concierge and wooer of rich old women. Storm clouds are gathering in Europe, and neo-Nazis wearing “ZZ” emblems on their collars threaten young Zero, an orphan and refugee from an unnamed Middle Eastern land.
Anderson shot the movie on location in Germany, and for the hotel he located an empty art nouveau department store in Gorlitz with magnificent crisscrossing stairways, which he and production designer Adam Stockhausen converted into the stunningly colorful hotel lobby. The sense of being in a dollhouse is complete, reinforced by Anderson’s boxy visual style. He’s always loved the comic-strip feel of proscenium framing, and like Stanley Kubrick he has a mania for symmetrical compositions. Often he gathers his characters together for posed shots in which they sit for the camera as if he were lining them up for play. Anderson is one of the few directors working today who can actually get laughs with a camera, and his signature move—a horizontal pan that suddenly reverses itself, as if one were doing a double take—is all over The Grand Budapest Hotel, along with vertical pans to the floors above and comic zooms that pull us through windows and into other rooms.
No amount of visual invention can substitute for characters, though, and Anderson doesn’t so much write characters anymore as recruit a great cast and dress them up: in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Tilda Swinton dons old-age makeup to play one of M. Gustave’s paramours, Adrien Brody twirls a wax moustache as her enraged son, Bill Murray wears muttonchops as a courtly concierge at another hotel, Willem Dafoe plays a vicious thug with a flattop and underbite dentures that make him look like a bulldog, and Saoirse Ronan, as young Zero Moustafa’s love interest, sports a big red beauty mark on her cheek in the shape of Mexico. When we learn that Zero’s parents were both murdered during civil strife in their native land, and that M. Gustave later comes to a tragic end, such grim events seem to transpire in a different world from the candy-colored building of the title.
The Missing Picture, a recent Oscar nominee for best documentary, also tells the story of a boy whose parents died at the hands of political oppressors, though in this case it really happened. In April 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, young Rithy Panh and his family were turned out of their home in Phnom Penh, herded with their neighbors into railway boxcars, taken to the countryside, and forced to labor on collective farms that were supposed to erase all class distinctions in Cambodian society. Their possessions were confiscated, their clothes dyed black, their names changed as part of their political “reeducation.” Anyone daring to challenge the revolutionary wisdom or even speak about the past was executed. Panh’s high school was turned into a torture center and his brother, a rock-and-roller, disappeared. First his father and then his mother starved to death in the ensuing famine.
Some artists turn people into dolls, and some turn dolls into people. In The Missing Picture, Panh dramatizes his experiences using dozens and dozens of little clay figurines, only two or three inches tall, which he carves, paints, and assembles against large dioramas re-creating his neighborhood in Phnom Penh and the muddy farms where he and his parents toiled. The movie breaks the fourth wall with close-ups of his hands as he works on the little figures, and their hollowed-out faces are haunting. “The revolution is pure,” Panh observes in his simple but eloquent voice-over narration. “No need for humans.” Yet the practice of carving the figurines paradoxically turns these victims of mass dehumanization back into people with their own individual hopes, dreams, and sorrows. The Missing Picture is every bit as fanciful as The Grand Budapest Hotel, with a comparable sense of the filmmaker fashioning his characters by hand, but unlike Anderson, whose movies retreat ever further from reality, Panh confronts and transcends it.
The challenge of making a full-length feature from still figures is enormous, and Panh meets it with considerable ingenuity. Ongoing characters such as the family members are carved in multiple poses to inject a little variety into the “action,” and the diorama settings are enhanced by evocative background noise on the soundtrack. Panh incorporates black-and-white archival footage of the Khmer Rouge putting people through their endless paces in the rice fields, and even superimposes his own figures onto those scenes. Besides the clay figurines, his primary visual motif is the unspooling of 35-millimeter film stock dredged up from the 70s and freed from its chemical-encrusted canisters; the movie opens with lush color footage showing a dancer in traditional costume, which has nothing to do with the story per se but conjures up a lost world of beauty and romance. “I seek my childhood like a missing picture,” Panh explains in his narration, which seems like a natural impulse for a man whose personal possessions, including family photos and anything else signifying his past life, were stripped away.
In a striking coincidence, The Missing Picture also imagines a film studio as the biggest train set a boy ever had. When Panh was growing up in Phnom Penh, one of his neighbors was a film director, and Panh spent countless hours watching him work. “I loved the wonderful wigs and costumes, the colors and gold, the land of giants and fairy tales,” he recalls. His diorama of the studio is populated by dozens of clay extras, crew members, and actors, not to mention the director calling through his megaphone; a long horizontal pan across the entire scene uncannily replicates Wes Anderson’s American Express commercial. But this world was lost too: under the Khmer Rouge, film artists were executed or sent out to the rice fields to atone for their vanity. You have to wonder why they didn’t hire a helicopter and get the hell out of there. Surely they could have put it on the card.