Wes Anderson is more or less at a midpoint of his career:
well past being the hip newcomer, he has established a trademark style that has
both earned him a devoted following and attracted a host of critics. The latter found much to dislike about his
most recent film, The Grand Budapest
Hotel, which is as lush and eccentric a celebration of style as anything
Anderson has yet created. The opening
scene might be read as depicting both sides of the Anderson divide: into a
deliciously bleak European cemetery walks a hipster girl who might represent
Anderson’s ideal fan—quiet, bookish, nattily dressed, with a beret and a
quaintly retro smattering of badges on her lapel. Outside the cemetery stands a disaffected
boy, who’d rather stand alone in the cold than pay homage to the anonymous
“Author” whose memorial lies within.
Later, the film’s protagonist, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes),
praises his protégé’s new fiancée, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and when he learns
that she also feels fondly about him, replies: “That’s a good sign, you know.
It means she ‘gets it.’ That’s
important.” With Anderson, it’s clear that
plenty of critics don’t “get it.” Stephanie
Zacharek of The Village Voice
complains: “This meticulously appointed dollhouse of a movie just went on and
on, making me want to smash many miniature plates of plaster food in frustration,”
while David Thomson condemns it as “an avalanche of sickening sweetness … a
remorseless succession of pretty frames with frosted colors.” What is implied by these criticisms is that viewers have to make a choice between prettiness and seriousness, between frivolity
and politics. But maybe there’s another
choice—maybe prettiness is political.
One of the film’s harshest critics, Kyle Smith for the New York Post, actually seems to get it
just right when he notes that: “The most Wes Anderson-y moment … is the
arrival, at a prison security desk, of foodstuffs meant for the inmates. A loaf
of bread? Violently stabbed. A sausage? Sliced to bits. Then comes an
enchanting little pastry, a frail folly of icing and butter. To check it for
the hidden and forbidden would be to destroy it. So the guards (unseen,
unremarked upon) simply pass it through untouched. It contains, of course, digging tools with
which our heroes will break out of prison.” Those who love Anderson’s films
would likely agree with this interpretation: some things are too precious to be destroyed, and that’s exactly what this film
So what’s so wrong, exactly, with a couple of toughened
prison guards refraining from destroying a preciously decorated pastry? If such a response is considered too
implausible, this says more about our ideas of beauty, and of how men respond
to it, than it does about Anderson’s particular brand of beauty. What Anderson offers us in this film is an
idea of masculinity and of culture that finds strength in making and preserving
beautiful things rather than destroying them.
It’s no surprise this idea would be a hard sell in some quarters of
American cinema. Whether it’s blowing
things up at the Cineplex, or remorselessly tackling topical issues at the Art
House, Americans seem bent on seeking darkness and violence rather than life
Contrary to popular opinion, Anderson does not shy
away from violence: it’s there, even in his effete protagonist, M. Gustave.
When his protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), visits him in prison, he finds his face
horribly bruised. We first assume that
the perfume-wearing concierge has been beaten (or worse), but instead, he
explains: “What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living shit out of a
snivelling, little runt called Pinky Bandinski who had the gall to question my
virility—because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from penny dreadfuls,
it’s that, when you find yourself in a place like this, you must never be a
candy-ass. You’ve got to prove yourself from Day One. You’ve got to win their respect.” But after he spits out a mouthful of blood
into his coffee mug, he adds, “He’s actually become a dear friend.” There is violence in this world, the film
tells us, but also grace, manners, and wit.
The character of M. Gustave, in what is surely
Ralph Fiennes’ finest performance in many years, represents the Anderson ethos:
among men dressed in black, he is the purple-clad servant of beauty. The concierge glides through his pink hotel
like the spirit of a lost world, one where color, form, and pleasing scents are
more important than money and power.
True, the hotel where he works is the exclusive dwelling place of old
Europe’s one percent, but Anderson’s heroes are those who make that world, the
concierges, the lobby boys, the baker’s assistant. They sustain a beautiful illusion while all
around them Europe is giving way to the brutalities of war. In one crucial scene, Gustave and Zero are
saved by a police officer (Edward Norton), who remembers the concierge’s
kindness to him when he “was a lonely little boy.” After he leaves, Gustave turns to Zero and says:
“You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse
that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own
modest, humble, insignificant,” and at this point Gustave seems to recognize
he’s getting on a soap box and concludes, “Oh, fuck it.”
This is a key Anderson moment, and in some ways a key (or
crossed key) to the film itself: there’s a message here, something important to
be said, but by all means let’s not be boring about it. The mannered delivery of his characters, the
stylized sets, and the meticulous mise en
scene are not substitutes for ideas: they are the ideas. When Gustave steps off the soap box here, he’s
not evading making a statement—he’s letting the medium itself make that
statement. And at the risk of being
ponderous where Anderson’s characters are elegantly restrained, the statement
might be something like this: meet violence with grace, austerity with color,
meanness with beauty.
If the response of financial experts and governments to hard
times is to impose austerity measures, we might at least avoid imposing them on
our films. In America, in particular, we
are uncomfortable with beauty. We equate
it with frivolity, with weakness. In M.
Gustave, the film presents us with a kind of stand-in for the director himself,
clad in vivid colors and fussing over every beautiful detail. Though the villains in the film call Gustave
a “fruit” and a “fucking faggot,” he represents a model of behavior that
reconciles qualities traditionally designated male or female. Confronted by bullies, he responds with
manners and wit, and though he gets knocked around quite a bit, he never loses
his impeccable color sense, or his moral sense.
For Anderson, these two sensibilities are inextricably entwined. They may also be of another era.
The film is ultimately an elegy, but perhaps one to a time
that never existed except in the imagination.
The anonymous author who narrates the film asks the now-aged Zero
Moustafa what The Grand Budapest, that “costly, unprofitable, doomed hotel,”
means to him: “Is it simply your last connection to that—vanished world? His [M. Gustave’s] world, if you will?” But he disagrees: “To be frank, I think his
world had vanished long before he entered it—but, I will say: he certainly
sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
And this, Anderson’s work suggests, is really the point of making
films. Isn’t it, darling?
Claire Hero is the author of Dollyland (Tarpaulin Sky), Sing, Mongrel (Noemi Press), and two other chapbooks: afterpastures (Caketrain) and Cabinet (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Handsome and elsewhere. She lives in upstate New York.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.