15 years and change since Rushmore, it would seem that there couldn't possibly be any more development in the aesthetics of Wes Anderson, a director whose personal stamp is about as obvious as anybody's ever has been. And yet here we are, and The Grand Budapest Hotel exists, and it feels like it might be the most purified and direct expression of the Anderson Style that has ever existed, the one that most completely takes place entirely within the artificial world that he has created for it. Even the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn't feel like it takes place in such a thoroughly artificial series of locations.

Which would ordinarily be enough to mark the film out as the most airless and irritatingly arch thing in the director's career, yet a miracle has happened, and the exact opposite is true: if anything, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film that Anderson was born for, unabashedly the best thing he's done since The Royal Tenenbaums, and I could probably be gotten drunk enough to start declaring how it's the new masterpiece of his whole career. For despite the unbelievably and almost literally indescribably fussiness of the imagery, it's one of his most thoroughly expressed depictions of theme and feeling. Despite the understanding we all have of what the Anderson Style actually means (brightly color-coded sets and costumes; centered compositions with actors staring directly at the camera; staccato, patter-like dialogue involving a nest of clauses and subjunctions that can barely be diagrammed, let alone spoken aloud), it's easy to forget that it also involves a healthy dose of melancholy and loss, and Grand Budapest doubles-down on this by opening and closing in a wintry cemetery, of all places, where a young woman (Jella Niemann) visits the grave of a great author (Tom Wilkinson), clutching a copy of his book The Grand Budapest Hotel (the onscreen depiction of the book cover doubles as the only statement of the film's title). From this setting we flash back to 1985, with the author giving an interview of how he came to come upon that book's story in 1968, when as a young man (Jude Law) on a spa trip in the Ruritanian country of Zubrowka (which, in our reality, is a brand of Polish vodka), he met Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the nearly empty ruin where he was then staying. Moustafa, sensing a receptive soul, told him the story of how he first came to the hotel during its greatest period of splendor, in 1932, when he (Tony Revolori) was a green lobby boy under the command of the legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

It's not insisted on while you're watching the film burrow through its layers, but the return to the girl and her book in the cemetery at the end makes it impossible to forget: we're watching a tremendously fluffy bit of nonsense in which all of the participants are dead - so dead that the film has to add an entire outermost layer of framework narrative to make sure that it's given enough time for all of the people with speaking roles to die. And that is how a movie that, for the great majority of its running time is a blissed-out collage of '60s Euro-caper, pre-Code Lubitsch comedy (an obvious, surface-level comparison to make; but I don't think all those shots of people walking through doors can possibly be an accident, and unyieldingly brutal black comedy (not only is "the cat is dead" used a joke, "the cat's brains are splattered all over the cobblestones" is the amazingly funny punchline to that joke, and I say that as an unrepentantly ideological cat lover), can actually be about the tang we all feel when we stop for long enough to glance back and realise how much we have lost, and how much has changed beyond our ability to recognise it. It's not a sorrowful wallow in misery: the signal moment in the movie comes when a character, recounting how someone he loved died, lightly and almost laughingly describes it as a ridiculous disease.

It is, however, absolutely saturated in the awareness of time passing. At the structural level, there is its layering, distancing accumulation of frames and narrators (to the common complaint that Anderson's films hold the characters at arms' length, The Grand Budapest Hotel enthusiastically replies, "oh, no, much further than that!"); at the narrative level, there is the constant, film-long spectre of revolution and war in a time place that the film rather specifically situates in the space between the Russian Revolution and the outbreak of World War II, a time when the charming tourist's Europe in which the film takes place was wiped from the face of the Earth; at the stylistic level, there is the use of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio for all of the 1932 scenes, which is both good film history and a very obvious attempt to make something alien and old-fashioned out of the material (also, Anderson and his longtime cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman create more exciting compositions in that ratio than they ever have before, so there's that). It could not more literally be a film about how things decay and die. And compared to this, the brittle Andersonisms play less like the work of a man who truly does not grasp what people behave like and why (the impression one can sometimes get from something like The Darjeeling Limited), more like the witty anthropologist of The Royal Tenenbaums, who understood how highly artificial, presentational behavior could be understood as an attempt by the damned and dying to assert control over an uncontained situation. There's a line in The Grand Budapest Hotel that says this almost overtly, near the very end where it can't possibly be missed as anything but a statement of purpose. It is with this film that I first realised that Anderson is depicting bands of small-c conservatives, standing athwart history and yelling stop, without realising that history is already far past them.

Which makes the film sound like an unbearable slog, so I should backtrack and talk about what an immensely pleasurable film this is. The dominating theme of the film is pastry: the Grand Budapest looks like an elegant multi-layered frosted cake that might serve as the triumphant climax to one of its own dinners; baked goods of the highest quality and most fussy sort serve as key elements of the plot at multiple turns. And the film itself is an immaculate dessert, dauntingly sweet and impressively complex. There are those who would use this as an argument against the film and the filmmaker, because even the fanciest dessert is just junk food, and to them I say: I have made more than one dacquoise in my life, and just because it's not nourishing doesn't mean that it's not profoundly difficult artistry that only the most brilliant can make look as fleet and easy as Anderson does with this film. Everything about the film is candy: Adam Stockhausen's sets and Milena Canonero's costumes are pink-and-purple-and-blue eye candy, Alexandre Desplat's score (which by the film's halfway point, had already become my favorite thing he's done since at least The Painted Veil) is playfully multi-ethnic, Mitteleuropean ear candy, and the typically swirling dialogue delivered by Anderson's best cast ever (Fiennes in particular giving, the best performance in an Anderson film since Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenanbaums or Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore), full of anachronistic cursing and gleefully self-aware wordplay, is mind candy. But candy is not bad unless you have a steady diet of it, and I don't think there are enough Lubitch-slash-Tarantinto-slash-Nabokov exercises in the world to be worried about it.

I have said not a damn thing about the plot because it's much too joyful in its precise clockwork to give away even the earliest details, and much too complicated for a spare synopsis to do much good for anybody. I will mention, however, that you need to stay for the ending credits. Not only is the best musical cue in the whole film ("Traditional Arrangement: Moonshine", the name for a madcap orchestration that's anything but traditional) at the end of the credits, the most delightful joke in the movie and the most delightful joke I expect to see in 2014 is there as well. It's as fussy and silly as anything else in the movie, with the added delight of being astoundingly random, infused with the same kick of self-critiquing nostalgia that makes this such an ambivalently frothy lark.