the grand budapest hotel: on storybook time

Sometimes, I’ll hear a critic or a friend try to rank the Wes Anderson movies, which I find a bit confounding. Sure, you might decide that his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is somewhat better than other Anderson movies. But every feature he’s made seems to exist in one contiguous Anderson universe, and whether you like any or all of the movies seems like it ought to depend far more on whether you like that universe, not the merits of any single film.

Or maybe I just think he’s so consistently good that it’s useless to pick only one to like best. At any rate, one advantage of a filmmaker establishing a space to return to film after film is that each one then seems like a variation on a theme, significant as much for its relationship to the other variations as for itself. Take The Grand Budapest Hotel as an example. Indeed, it fits neatly into the Wes Anderson world that was established with his first major release, Rushmore, and maintained intact all the way through his last, Moonrise Kingdom. But that lets you find rather fine-grained differences between the movies, if that’s your sort of thing.

Obviously, that’s my sort of thing, so I think it’s fun to think about how GBH distinguishes itself, even while fitting perfectly into the Anderson aesthetic. The Grand Budapest Hotel sticks out among Anderson’s movies, I think, by how it situates itself in history, while at the same time serving as a good reminder of the twisted relationship between Anderson’s films and the past.

Before I can explain how Budapest is different, I ought to make clear how I feel Anderson normally treats the past. Superficially, he’s always developing an aesthetic that is rooted in the past, borrowing bits of fashion, product design, and pure pop-culture ephemera from all over the second half of the 20th century. The result is an amalgamation of recent decades all co-existing as a seamless whole. Anderson is always interested in the past, yet it’s unclear just which past, and by not specifying which one, his movies don’t substantiate a real history, but something more like an imagined history.

I’m tempted to extend this characterization – Anderson plunders the past for his aesthetic – even to the mannered acting of the characters. Their most defining feature is their deadpan quality; the acting is only slightly expressive, and might even have been downright unreadable if the actors weren’t so good. (I’m thinking, for instance, of the ending of The Royal Tenenbaums, when Chas’s big emotional break at the end seems to be contained in a single line, something like “It’s been a tough year.”) I’m out on a limb here, but I want to claim that even this under-acting is related to the way that Anderson’s movies seem to belong to another time. For one, it’s virtually impossible to imagine anybody from an Anderson film in, say, a reality-TV show as we know them. It’s not that the actors don’t show any emotion whatsoever, it’s that they don’t expound on it at length.

Their reticence and lack of public introspection is a bit foreign to the modern mindset, even especially to the sort of the people who enjoy Wes Anderson movies. His characters rarely confess anything about how they feel, and when they do, it’s almost as an afterthought. With a little free-association, this evokes for me a throwback to a pre-therapy era when people could live their entire lives being emotionally dysfunctional without anyone ever calling them to the carpet for it.

Whether I’m right about this point on the acting, however, it’s obvious enough that the Wes Anderson brand is one that relies on the shapes, textures, and sounds of past decades, even as he avoids referencing a specific historic time. The end effect is that his films tend to take place in the same nebulous era as storybook tales.

That is, until The Grand Budapest Hotel, which seems to take on its relationship to history much more explicitly than past Anderson creations. For one, it’s set in a named year, and, by the end of the movie, one of our narrators has observed that the movie’s primary character, Ralph Fiennes’ terrific Monsieur Gustave, is a cultural relic.

What is this past he’s a relic of? One of the great things about Wes Anderson is that he often establishes relationships and dynamics with a pittance in exposition. In this case, he suggests the antiquated high society of a bygone era without anyone saying those words aloud, through the character of a wonderfully decrepit-looking Tilda Swinton. She represents privilege and wealth, and a time when the fatuousness of a Paris Hilton was not celebrated but presumably ignored. Swinton’s dame is a woman for whom cultivation and manners matter, and who is, despite being grotesquely rich, tender enough to submit to poetry. She is of a period when success and fame were not synonymous, and idealism could be pursued earnestly, with a straight face.

Those are clearly M. Gustave’s values, too, even if he occasionally punctuates his speech with a bit of pure vulgarity. In his view, we may not all be lucky enough to have money, but we are all lucky enough to embody good manners if we so choose. This idea, put forth and emphasized, dates M. Gustave: If it was ever a popular sentiment, it isn’t any longer in the present day, at least not as anything more than a slogan and a desire for public civility. But a desire for civility isn’t the same as feeling an imperative to uphold standards of politesse, and that’s what we’re talking about.

M. Gustave’s caring, intimate relationship with the elder Madame D. hints at another antiquated notion: the personal touch of knowing your clients. M. Gustave is a confidant, we are told, who will take your secrets to the grave, and who truly cares for his guests. In his world, wealthy guests don’t want to be treated anonymously, surely the hallmark of an era that has ended, even more than the decline of manners as an ideal to hold to. Social media or no, in almost all of 21st century life, anonymity is just a part of being a customer in a world of commerce driven by numbers and physical mobility. We don’t know our concierge personally, and we don’t expect to. Hell, often we don’t even know our neighbors personally. In many arenas but most definitely in the hotel business, both staff and customer are defined more by their economic function than by their personalities and identities.

I don’t know if Anderson intended all these associations, but I have them. He has said this movie is indeed about nostalgia, and in my case, it’s worked. Even though I know I’ve imagined half of what I’m ascribing to the past here, I’m still nostalgic for that past, oddly, as godawful as history has been in so many ways.

For a movie that seeks to evoke nostalgia and a sense of history, it’s especially puzzling – and intriguing – that Grand Budapest goes to pains to separate itself from actual history. The Hotel exists in a fictional country, and the brutes that overrun it take as their insignia two stylized Zs, echoing the SS, yet purposely not identified that way. The director makes little to no effort, actually, to locate the film solidly in an accurate rendition of the past. Wes Anderson has set his nostalgic love of the past in an elaborately developed world that is decidedly not a recreation of that past, but only a loose re-imagining of it. And, thankfully, Anderson lets this contradiction stand and makes no effort to repair it.

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