Wes Anderson’s Literary Retreat
“Most professional humanists…are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of practices such as slavery, colonialist, and racial oppression, and imperial subjection on one hand, and the poetry, fiction, philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other.
“Culture conceived in this way can become a protective enclosure: check your politics at the door before you enter it.”
–Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, xiv.
The Grand Budapest Hotel proves beyond doubt that, though many film artists are more evasive, obscure, and intellectual, none are more literary than Wes Anderson. His latest works begins with a series of nested frames. In the present day, a woman in a dilapidated Eastern European country we later learn is called Zubrowka lays a key on a gravestone, commemorating the titular hotel. She opens a book, a memoir written by The Author, portrayed as an old man by Tom Wilkinson. Jude Law, playing The Author as a young man, serves as our narrator. He received most of our story from one Zero Moustaffa, the aging owner of the once-great Grand Budapest Hotel, while visiting the establishment in 1968.
Law recounts, in wistful tones, the fanciful tale of Moustaffa’s friendship with the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave H, a heavily perfumed dandy and benevolent tyrant to the staff who beds old aristocratic women because they are insecure and needy for attention. The rest of the cast is filled out with Wes Anderson’s repertory company, from relative newcomers like Edward Norton to veterans Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. All of the characters are literary in skin and bone, embodied with the precision and finesse Anderson is known for. His works have long been known as enthusiastic flourishes of refined wit, and everything here, gunfights, prison escapes, fascist thugs, and decapitations included, is communicated with flair. Brisk and dense, it bounces from one scene to another, portraying all kinds of macabre scenes with either deadpan melancholy or deadpan mirth. Its themes of glory in decline, bonds between generations, the difficulties of family and love, and youthful ingenuity, all work in tandem. Anchored by visual motifs that stand out but don’t become intrusive, these themes are integral to the film and not mere set dressing, though because they emerge from such a refined surface it is tempting to dismiss the whole film as patrician kitsch or nostalgic comfort food for wannabe aristocrats.
Believe me, if it were that easy to dismiss or dislike The Grand Budapest Hotel, I would have taken that route. Anderson, however, is well-armoured against such blitheness. Like Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane he consciously recalls in the voice over narration, the palatial settings, and the story of terminal decline, Anderson has cinematic mastery on his side. His skill at manipulating not just actors and settings but whole worlds gives his work a remarkable integrity and a resilience against criticism. This manifests in the way people talk about his films. You are either “a fan” or not. Accept all of it or none of it. There are those who have a more difficult relationship with his work, but those people have never set the tone for the conversations around him.
What undoes The Grand Budapest Hotel, and all of Anderson’s work to one degree or another, is that its world is just the sort of protective enclosure to which Said alludes. It is a world without politics, cosmopolitan not only in a geographical but also a temporal sense. Here the cast speaks English in a soup of accents, none of which are Slavic. It comes closest to evoking the decadent multi-national character of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in a most anachronistic way. One could object that this film is quite political indeed, since it is a fable dramatizing the crushing of European grandeur and tolerant liberalism under fascist boots. Watching the film, though, it becomes apparent that, to Anderson, the greatest crimes of the fascists are their lack of any fashion sense. Since style is so tightly knitted to the themes of the film, one could interpret the black and grey uniforms the fascists and the police wear in this film as sophisticated cinematic ways of suggesting fascism’s terrible crimes. We also have Willem Dafoe playing at a Nosferatu impression in his role as a Zigzag thug (Zigzag being the film’s clever way of alluding to Nazis without having to engage actual history). He’s the only truly monstrous character, and also the only one doing the brutal killing until the very end. Suffice to say that, with its fairy tale setting and fond feelings for the time of dukes and barons, or at least their wardrobes, the film has a tendency to do the impossible. It wants to evoke the emotions of decline and despair that attended the beginning of the Second World War without naming names, keeping everything at a remove so that we can laugh when someone throws a lawyer’s cat out the window or thrill at a merry ski chase down the Zubrowkian Alps.
Some of Anderson’s critics claim that the distancing inherent in his approach to filmmaking dampens the emotions of his work. A more immediate, “naturalistic” approach to characters seems to suit such people better. Though there is a problem with the artifice of Wes Anderson’s films, for me it has never been a lack of emotion. To me, his films are almost entirely acts of feeling, and his overt stylization is an attempt to bring those emotions out of the subtext and into the texture of the film itself. He’s fond of a more literary style, where colors, objects, and facial expressions (etc.) are tools utterly at his disposal. He is not interested in representing the world as it is, but rather, through these fantastic inventions of his, representing these characters’ emotions and states of mind with absolute clarity. No, his problem has never been emotional austerity, but rather a total lack of understanding of how power works in the world.
Don’t mistake me; I don’t mean to say that he lacks a sense of morality or right and wrong. On the contrary, his work is highly moral, even moralistic, in its enshrining of families and communal traditions–no matter how idiosyncratic–as sacred. Cosmopolitan, ocean-hopping aesthete that he is, he produces films that mourn the loss of extraordinary individuals. He looks back at the past as a time of daring adventure and discovery, magnificent books, and more interesting people. To compare M.Gustave with M. Anderson is not a big stretch. Both are, or feel they are, living memories of a past era, trying to give people the perfect experience in a luxury package. The Grand Budapest Hotel is too big to be compared to a confection or expensive jewelry. It’s more like the vast old hotel from which it gets its name: intricate, stunning, and populated with the kinds of people Wes Anderson probably wishes he could meet more often.
Zero, the film’s ostensible protagonist, is a refugee from India and often the victim of the precarity of his position. He is instantly suspicious traveling on trains and even his dear friend M. Gustave can’t help but unleash a racist tirade at him. Though Gustave repents immediately, and Zero forgives him, a few sticking points lead me to believe that this film, like the old British novels Edward Said talks about in Culture and Imperialism, carries an unspoken dependence on imperialism.
Though broadly humanistic, it not only transforms Zero from an Indian into the much whiter F. Murray Abraham (who is of Syrian-American descent) in only a few decades, but fails to recognize fascism for what it truly is. It seems to despise fascism while embracing the old aristocracy, missing that fascism is a creature of the old world Anderson loves. Just as the colonialism that paid for The Grand Budapest’s striking coat of paint destroyed Zero’s life and turned him into a refugee, its logic infests Europe itself in the form of Nazism. After all, what is Nazism but European Manifest Destiny extended to “lower” forms of European life along with black and brown people? What Said, Frantz Fanon, and many Marxist critics and historians, including Domenico Losurdo, understand is that the Western “humanist” liberal project is corrupt at its roots. Driven by an acquisitive drive and a disregard for life despite protests otherwise, it is an inherently violent ideology of dispossession and exploitation. Zero’s salvation ultimately derives from his friendship with Gustave, who wills him the hotel. It’s hereditary hospitality, and The Grand Budapest Hotel loves it.
On its own terms, The Grand Budapest Hotel is brilliant. I think it’s imperative, however, to question and reject its terms whenever it trips over from historical fantasy into sheer historical ignorance. Sadly, that happens all too often, and the entire logic of the film, its politics if you will, depend on nostalgia for a time that meant death and deprivation for the vast majority of the world’s people. It’s gentrified “cupcake fascism,” a comfortable, slightly sad reminder to its privileged audience of a grander time that obscures its violent underpinnings with so much confetti and spectacle. That doesn’t make it unenjoyable, but it certainly vaporizes any of the film’s attempts to communicate a more explicit message to its audience. Wes Anderson’s lack of political imagination and his devotion to visual sumptuousness are not necessarily connected, and the former is a blight on the work of one of the most skillful directors and screenwriters America has produced in the last few decades.