Wes Anderson and the Old Regime
Death has always been central to Wes Anderson’s films. That might seem a strange thing to say when you consider the elaborately pretty candy-box aesthetic he favors, but it’s true. Just think of the gory forearm-slitting suicide attempt — using the classic and correct vertical-slit form of suicide by exsanguination — in the middle of The Royal Tenenbaums. Think of how often Anderson uses a character’s demise to motivate or cap his series of amusing scenes, without ever disturbing the overall impression of amusement (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Tenenbaums).
Consider that Anderson kills a beloved animal for laughs in almost every film. Usually it’s a dog, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel he switches it up and kills a cat. The corpse is carried away by his loving owner inside an impromptu bag made out of fine-looking cloth marred by a single, artful blotch of blood. Then the owner, played by Jeff Goldblum with his usual self-amused irony, passes a garbage can on the street and abruptly tosses the bag into it with a slapstick comedy thump.
It was at that moment that I became officially sick of Wes Anderson, and of the gleeful laughter in the theater that accompanies every Wes Anderson-ish move he makes. The audience even anticipates the move he’s going to make and begins guffawing ahead of time, just to be sure to appear maximally Wes-savvy.
Many more characters die in Grand Budapest Hotel than in most Anderson films, but as usual they create no ripple on the movie’s polished surface. Main character Moutava’s beloved wife succumbs off-screen to “the Polish grippe,” and it’s fun to hear “Polish grippe” pronounced aloud. There are several entertaining murders done by Willem Dafoe’s cartoonishly ruthless proto-SS assassin, the goriest of which involves four severed fingers, which are shown lying in the snow in extreme close-up and then fastidiously picked up by the assassin one by one.
The death that hurt me personally, other than the cat’s, was that of the poor, downtrodden, terrified, clubfooted laundress, because she was clearly DOA from the moment she appeared onscreen. Her head is produced from a cloth bag, a different cloth bag — cloth murder bags and pink boxes of pastries are recurring motifs, you might say — with the face stuck in the position of her final scream.
After viewing The Grand Budapest Hotel, I realized I had had it with Anderson’s fancy boxed chocolates. Either they’ve gotten toxically moldy over time, or they were always disgusting and I was too disgusting myself to notice it. To put it bluntly, I’ve decided I hate Wes Anderson, and that at some level, I’d like to think I’ve always hated him. I wish I could come up with a quick, clever way to sum up my hatred and be done with it, like Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who ends his furious pan of The Grand Budapest Hotel with the snappy line, “That’s Wes Anderson: He can’t see the forest for the twee.”
But I feel so ill from watching Grand Budapest myself, I have to plod my way through the Anderson experience in order to understand it.
I’ve kept watching his films these many years because I have a terrible weakness for film formalism. In a world full of dull, vaguely realist films of no particular visual interest, I am mad for striking compositions, thematically significant camera movements, and gorgeous color schemes. So it would seem as if Wes Anderson would be the perfect auteur for me. But he never has been, really. I’ve generally felt more disturbed than pleased to find myself responding to some aspect of an Anderson film.
For example, I was poleaxed by a beautiful choral arrangement of the old folk song “Old Abram Brown” in Moonrise Kingdom because it seemed to suggest so intimate a knowledge of my own childhood. We used to sing that song as a round back in elementary school, and I’ve quizzed some of my peers to see if they remember doing the same. So far, no one does, and the result is that I feel vaguely creeped out, as if Wes Anderson and I went to the same elementary school and, out of all the captive children, we alone responded to that strange old song and were hooked like fish on hearing it again. It goes like this:
Old Abram Brown is dead and gone, we’ll never see him more,
He used to wear a long grey coat that buttoned down before.
There were more verses about other dead men we’d never see more, but I can’t remember them. It was a hell of a rhyme to sing at the age of eight or whatever I was, but I liked the song. I liked all those weird old songs we used to sing that strongly evoked a world preceding ours, a world that was deep, dark, and hard in ways I couldn’t fathom. Our own suburban grade-school world was extremely mean and full of anxiety, but that’s a different thing.
So I can’t claim Anderson doesn’t have a certain power as a filmmaker. But after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, it seems clear he doesn’t use his power for good. He gloats over small contemporary cruelties, he candy-coats a world of casual nastiness in bright colors and hummable tunes, and death in his films makes no mark, it just functions as a design element, a dash of dark pigment that sets off the bright colors to better advantage.
And now on top of everything, instead of his usual indirect evocation of that older, deeper, darker, harder, unfathomable past in remembered songs and storybook allusions, as part of the nostalgia kit Anderson characters seem to carry about like fashionable messenger bags, he announces with this new film that he’ll present that lost world to us outright.
He doesn’t do it, of course. But even his semblance of doing it is horrible, like a waking nightmare.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, we get 1930s Eastern Europe as a baroque Neverland still embedded in a comically aristocratic 19th-century past, but on the cusp of a fascist take-over. It’s the cutest Fascist take-over ever conceived. The Nazi-equivalents march around sporting a “ZZ” logo instead of a swastika, and their leader, played by Ed Norton as a nice understanding fellow just trying to do his job, sports on his stiff old-fashioned hard-billed cap the sweetly cartoon-drawn head of a wolf.
Anderson has had the sense to give himself plausible deniability regarding this grotesque vision of the past by making it tricky, embedding it in a series of narrated flashbacks. The film starts with a beloved author, played by Tom Wilkinson, who’s revered in the mythical Eastern European country of Zebrowka, telling the story of his younger self in the 1970s, played by Jude Law, who gets told the life story of the mysterious wealthy owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel by the man himself, Zero Moustava, played by F. Murray Abraham. So we flash back again, to the early 1930s, and watch young Zero Moustava, played by Tony Revolori (who could no more become anything like F. Murray Abraham in old age than Jude Law could ever resemble Tom Wilkinson), enact the tale of his adventurous life as a lobby boy and protégé of the flamboyant hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes.
Even my excessive love of formal effects was tested by these maddeningly detailed flashbacks one within the other like nesting-boxes, each one distinguished by different color schemes and aspect ratios, but not at all distinguished in sensibility. What’s the point in flashing back to older times in supposedly different cultures if everyone poses for the camera in exactly the same distrait Andersonian manner, dresses in the same type of outré form-fitting outfits, and are played by callow modern types like Anderson favorites Owen Wilson and Jason Schwarzman?
The focus of the film is on M. Gustave, the charismatic concierge who supposedly represents the grandly sophisticated Old Europe that is celebrated in the film and finally lost to the forces of fascism and modernity. Anderson’s film evokes several classic ones by talented writer/directors trained in the pre-fascist German film industry who managed to get out in time, such as Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, To Be Or Not to Be), Max Ophuls (Letter From an Unknown Woman, Earrings of Madame D…) and Emeric Pressburger (working with British partner Michael Powell on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).
All created characters featuring a remarkable zest for life in the form of fine food, broad-minded sex, and witty conversation combined with excellent manners and admirable toughness. Lubitsch and Pressburger engaged directly in anti-fascist film propaganda by presenting fond portraits of such endangered Good Europeans. M. Gustave is clearly meant to join this pantheon, announcing himself as the last vestige of civilization in “this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”
Only here’s the problem: Wes Anderson’s Old Europe is just like a modern Andersonian world we know so well, mannered, decorative and nostalgic, with slight additional flourishes in the form of fancier pastries and adorable funiculars for traveling up and down cartoon-cute mountains. Newly fascist Europe on the rise looks to be wonderfully Wes-like, only with slightly severer uniforms. 1970s Communist Zebrowka is the same too, though the décor takes on violent orange colors, but since Anderson loves ‘70s retro, that blends in fine. Which brings us to the present day in made-up Zebrowka, which is obviously Wes-world again. Since it’s all seamlessly unified, the whole suggestion that something wonderful has been lost circa 1934 carries no weight.
Though perhaps the confusion comes in with the expectation that anything Anderson does would carry weight. Enthralled film critics have been insisting that Anderson has created in Grand Budapest Hotel a fully mature work of art defined by a sense of melancholy over a lost world. I’d suggest they are confused by the characters in the film that sit around looking melancholy over a supposedly lost world, which is a different thing.
Anderson has reached the dizzying point of fantasizing about feeling nostalgic for nostalgia itself, for the purer strain of heartsick longing that was presumably felt once upon a time.
Really, Fredric Jameson ought to see this film in light of his famous discussion of the nostalgia film as an instance of postmodern pastiche, with its “complacent play of historical allusion.” Would he have a stroke on the spot watching this latest, pastichiest iteration, a textbook case right out of the pages of Jameson’s own “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”? Would he laugh diabolically? Would he feel the only true melancholy in a theater where The Great Budapest Hotel is playing?
For here is the most ludicrously extreme representation of postmodern cinema’s “undefinable nostalgic past … beyond history.” Here is represented the complete “historical amnesia” Jameson warned us would preclude our ability to grapple politically with our own moment in time.
I’ve been confessing my egregious mistake in letting myself be taken in so long by Wes Anderson’s formalist blandishments. Let me now add a profounder mea culpa for my old grad school self, who considered Fredric Jameson a tedious old Marxist trying to harsh my movie-going mellow.
Forgive me, Fred! You were right all along!
Eileen Jones is a film critic at NSFWCorp and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
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