I was checking Twitter on the toilet this past Friday evening, when I received confirmation that the world as we know it is ending:
The news came in the form of a Guardian piece, summarizing a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which, using a Human And Nature Dynamical Model (HANDY), found that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” The study concluded that technological progress is unlikely to save us, since historically, new efficiencies in resource use produced by such technologies have also increased per capita resource consumption. Happily, the authors believe collapse can be avoided, so long as the global community can agree that economic growth must be abandoned, and the resources of every nation be “distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.” After taking a moment to articulate my thoughts on this matter…
…I flushed, and departed for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
[Spoilers, Possibly Overwrought Analysis to Follow]
Wes Anderson sets his eighth feature in 1932, at that eponymous alpine resort, tucked way in the snowcapped mountains of the fictitious, central European nation of Zubrowa.
While the date and location suggest looming geopolitical chaos, within the bright pastel-colored walls of The Grand Budapest, fastidious concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) maintains the height of order and society. Gustave curates his guests’ experience with extraordinary care, exhaustively training his hand-picked staff to provide the highest standard of unobtrusive attentiveness, offering himself as a guide, confidante, and, if one happens to be an elderly female of significant means, a steadfast lover.
Many critics have identified Gustave as the auteur’s stand-in, the analogy between them almost inescapable, as Gustave’s meticulous craft as concierge is rendered through each of the director’s meticulously crafted shots.
And Anderson’s film evinces a concierge’s concern for maximizing the pleasure of our stay. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most intensely pleasurable film he’s ever made. Here you’ll find no melancholic ruminations on absent fathers or unrequited love. Instead, we are treated to a broadly comic adventure, centered on the relationship between Gustave and his orphaned teenaged Lobby Boy/protégé, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revelore). As played by Fiennes, Gustave is delightful, a perfume addicted, romantic poetry reciting, bi-sexual dandy with a taste for the oldest of ladies, whose absurdly mannered affectations butt-up comically against reality, as when he greets a band of fascist police by offering his hand and saying warmly, “I do believe you are the first of the death squads we’ve chanced to meet.”
The plot centers on the disputed estate of Madamme D (a heavily made-up Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s elderly paramours and owner of the Grand Budapest. After dying under mysterious circumstances, D wills to Gustave a priceless painting, thus inspiring her two fascistic sons, played with psychopathic brattiness by Willem Defoe and Adrian Brody, to frame Gustave for their mother’s murder.
Revelore provides Fiennes an able straight man, as the two navigate an art heist, a prison break, a murderous, euro-trash Willem Defoe on a motorcycle, and a stop-motion animated, winter sports-themed chase scene. All this plays out against Anderson’s splendorous mis-en-scene, teeming with visual gags.
Yet Anderson laces this delicious frivolity with a sorrow appreciable only upon digestion. While the violence and upheavals of the era are kept to the film’s edges, we’re repeatedly asked to gaze out to that horizon.
Late in the film, Zero reveals to Gustave that his entire family was killed in an unspecified conflict. Gustave, and the film’s other principle character, Zeros’ girlfriend Agatha, are likewise bereft of all family, for reasons that remain opaque. We learn in the film’s spiraling epilogue that Gustave dies at the hands of fascist police, and that Zero loses Agatha and their unborn child to a bout of grippe. Thus the space on either side of our jaunty narrative is defined by overwhelming loss.
The story is shadowed not only by the tragedies that precede and follow it, but also by the film’s acknowledgement of its own artifice. We only arrive at the Grand Budapest of Monsieur Gustave, after passing through layers of time and subjectivity.
The film opens with a teenage girl in the ostensible present, arriving at the memorial bust of a man named “Author,” whose monument is covered in dangling keys. She then opens a copy of a novel titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” thereby sending us to 1985, where this aged author, played by Tom Wilkinson, narrates his experience of writing the book to a television camera, explaining his tale was actually based on the recollections of a man he chanced to meet decades earlier, thus sending us to 1968, where a more youthful author, played by Jude Law, has traveled to Soviet-era Zubrowka, where he’s taken up residence at the now decrepit Grand Budapest, populated sparsely and exclusively, by isolated, world-weary individuals, among them an aged Zero, now the hotel’s owner, and as the two soak in the resort’s grimy baths, the author asks Zero how he came to own the Grand Budapest anyhow, bringing us to the hotel circa 1932, and our feature presentation.
The effect of this telescoping prologue, is to contextualize the world we inhabit for the bulk of the film as a teenage girl’s experience, of a novelistic rendering, of an overheard account, of an old man’s adolescent memories.
Thus the bright world of our farcical adventure has not been lost to time, but rather, created by lost time, through a chain of nostalgic yearning and imagination.
Some of the film’s detractors have faulted Anderson for evading the dark realities of his subject matter, by devoting the bulk of his running time to what Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson describes as “a kitschy adventure story that feels curiously weightless, at times even arbitrary.” He goes on to write that The Grand Budapest Hotel was “finally the film that had me screaming for Wes Anderson to say something. Anything, really.”
I agree with Lawson that the film diverts its attention from the grim realities of Eastern Europe on the eve of fascism, to dwell on a kitschy fantasy. But I think this very will to diversion is the film’s true subject, about which Anderson has much to say.
Like the hotel for which it’s named, Anderson’s film shelters its patrons from geopolitical conflict, within an immaculately circumscribed world of invention. From one angle, the film reads as a defense of creating or occupying such shelters.
In the Grand Budapest of the 60’s, Zero Moustafa has moved back into the claustrophobic servant’s room he occupied as a boy. When the young author asks why he hasn’t sold The Grand Budapest all these years on, Zero replies that he keeps it for his lost wife Agatha, explaining, “We were happy here once.”
He maintains the Grand Budapest because within the crumbling kitsch of its structure, something of his own ephemeral joy is retained. He goes to bed a make-believe servant, but by indulging this fantasy, he is connected to those parts of his experience that felt most viscerally real.
The world of Anderson’s film is self-consciously fantastical, but it’s connected by a thread of imagination and memory to real human experience. The film is inspired by the writings of the Austrian Jewish author Stefan Zweig, a child of the Viennese aristocracy, who lived through the first world war, and most of the second, before taking his own life in 1942, leaving behind a note, which read in part, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”
It feels to me that, mediated through time and cinematic tropes, something of a child’s memory of European high-society, and an adult’s mourning for its descent into barbarism, are retained in The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as, within the film’s reality, something of Zero’s love for Agatha is retained through the mediation of time and novelistic tropes, in the readerly imagination of the girl with the bicycle.
If we pan back from our subjective experience, bringing into frame the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, or post-invasion Iraq, if we view our lives in the context of contemporary struggle, or through the ultra-wide shot of geological time, all our most achingly important dramas would appear weightless, arbitrary adventures.
In evoking a period of mass suffering, but telling a broadly comic adventure story, in gesturing to the tragic episodes of its characters’ lives, but focusing on a joyful one, Anderson’s film argues that the bleakest aspects of the human condition don’t delegitimize its pleasures, that however fleeting or myopic, the experience of joy is life’s greatest consolation. The film is thus an argument for itself, for the redemptive power of artificial worlds, whose bright colors, playful wit, and elegiac nostalgia recall and revive our lost joys, reminding us we were happy here, once.
I left the theater thoroughly persuaded, smiling my way onto 23rd street, where I revived my iPhone, and found this reply from the friend who, earlier in the night, had directed me to NASA’s catastrophic report:
Sometime later, maybe on the subway back, I began to see ambivalence in the film’s self-endorsement.
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s main storyline is introduced when young Zero looks down on a morning newspaper, eyes suddenly bulging. He races through the city streets and the Grand Budapest’s elaborate geography, to wake Gustave, himself exhausted from a long night of geriatric fornication. When Zero hands over the paper, the camera swoops down onto the headline, which announces the declaration of war. Gustave gasps, and the camera pans down the page, to Madamme D’s death notice, revealing the true source of our characters’ concern.
This is one of many instances in which humor is mined from our heroes’ myopia, and I wondered if the sum total of such moments suggested the film meant to deprecate its own point-of-view.
It struck me that choosing to defy forces of destruction, by insisting on the supreme value of nostalgic fantasy, can only be virtuous if you are helpless against such forces. It seems existentially brave to insist on the significance of our fleeting pleasures against the march of time, but perhaps less so against the march of Nazis.
Anderson puts away the pastels for Gustave’s final scene, dressing 1930’s Europe in the black-and-white we’re used to. Early in the film, as Gustave and Zero make their way to the reading of Madamme D’s will, their train is stopped by fascist police, who attempt to arrest Zero for his lack of documentation. They are saved by the intervention of a friendly fascist played by Ed Norton, who recognizes Gustave as the kindly concierge he knew as a child. This later black-and-white scene mirrors the earlier one almost exactly, only now, when Gustave cheerfully introduces himself to the death squads, his meticulous oversight of The Grand Budapest does not keep the officers from beating him and seizing Zero. The epilogue implies that it was shortly after this incident, that police shot Gustave dead.
Is Anderson suggesting that, had Gustave focused on that top headline, had he treated the threat of fascism with the seriousness it deserves, his untimely death might have been prevented?
And if Gustave is Anderson’s stand-in, does that make his audience the hotel’s idle aristocrats, luxuriating in the pleasures of his living doll-house, while armies gather at their borders, or dire climate reports cycle through their Facebook feeds?
In likening his artistic project to a concierge’s accommodation of the decadent rich, is Anderson subtly indicting himself and his viewers?
Ultimately, I decided these anxieties were likely my own projections. Whatever dissonant chords it strikes, the dominant note of Anderson’s film is still one of joy undercut by a sadness more stoic than guilty.
But I find its veneration of frivolity in the face of disaster, to be itself far from frivolous. For it constitutes a message, about the consolations of nostalgic fantasy, that feels perfectly apt for our moment, so long as we accept we’re already beyond saving.