The Andersonian hero makes his own world. Not exactly a fantasist, he (and it’s almost always a he) is a man out of time. An aspiring thief (Bottle Rocket), a master thief (Fantastic Mr. Fox), wildly impractical teenagers (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), a discoverer of hidden worlds (Life Aquatic), families of prodigies (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). Their opponents are the depressing realities of everyday life, the warn-down depressions of middle-age (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), the accumulated disappointments of unrealized dreams (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums), or simply friends and family who lack their creative ambition and would rather settle down for a quiet life (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic).
Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave is The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s explicitly designated man out of time. A lone patch of civilization in the barbarous world of a fictionalized inter-war Central Europe. Dandyish and perfumed, prissy and effete, he swears like a drunken Marine and is very committed to his duties as concierge, going so far to please his guests as to sleep with all the rich, elderly ladies who come to stay at the palatial hotel (for he is their holding action against the inevitable declines of age). Against him stands not merely a personification of the real world or a more practical counterpart, but rather the systemic decline of civilization itself, murderous greed and the rise of fascism. Set against not merely the greedy inheritors of one of Gustave’s lover’s fortunes, but the increasingly menacing martial forces of a Nazi-like state, Grand Budapest Hotel is, I think, the first Anderson film to acknowledge an outside political reality whatsoever (rather than simply politics as family and personal relationships). That it deals with a phony version of an 80+ year old movement should come as no surprise.
You can divide Anderson’s heroes into the young and the middle aged. The kids seem like they’d be out of place at any time, their interests are not contemporary (playwriting, saving Latin, Benjamin Britten, Jacques Cousteau and young adult novels that don’t revolve around vampires), their diction unusually formal (a device that afflicts all Anderson characters, but is especially jarring coming from the young), a convoluted mix of ten-cent words, out-dated slang and contemporary bluntness. The middle-aged look back on their youth as a lost golden age as they find themselves set adrift from the family and friends that supported their dreams in their youth (it’s not hard to see Max Fischer in Royal Tenenbaum, Sam Shakusky in Steve Zissou). The young seem old and the old seem young. These heroes are occasionally arranged in (surrogate) father-son relationships: Rushmore, Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom. Such is the case in Grand Budapest with Gustave serving as mentor-hero to war orphan Lobby Boy Zero (and further relationships which cascade down the decades to the present day).
Not exactly nostalgia, but a longing for and a burning desire to resurrect the past is the guiding spirit of Anderson’s mise-en-scène. Dollhouse diorama worlds of right angles, 90 degree pans, stop-motion animation, obsessions with books and the readers of books. It’s a dynamically two-dimensional cinema, colorful and bright and flat, so resolutely idiosyncratic that it’s damn near impossible to find a review of one of his films that doesn’t utilize the world “stylized”. His cinematic references tend to be more spiritual than specific lines or images, the Lubitsch of the 1930s infects every scene of Grand Budapest Hotel without citation, as the essence of Night of the Hunter snuck its way into Moonrise Kingdom. The artificiality of his world is compounded by an ever-expanding repertory of character actors, recognizable faces in outlandish make-up and costumes populate the edges of his stories, while the central roles are as often played by unknowns as knowns. These are ultra-modern approaches to an ancient filmmaking form: the repertory of actors recalling the studio era heyday when each new film promised a Guy Kibbe or Lee Tracy or Frank Morgan or any number of other character actors grown familiar and lovable through repetition. The visual style moves even further back, to the flat staging of the silent era, and of course even beyond that to theatre and literature. But rather than Guy Maddin-style attempts at recreating the earlier, imperfections and all, Anderson updates the old forms with the latest technology, breathing new life into abandoned forms.
Idealistic and innocent, but certainly not naïve, M. Gustave is more like Anderson’s young heroes than his burned-out contemporaries (Mr. Fox as well is a grown-up idealist). But as a remnant of an earlier era, he shares with the older heroes a nostalgic worldview, a looking-back at a lost golden age, though the mechanics of that looking is more convoluted than ever, with a nesting doll flashback structure (each time period with its own aspect ratio) that recalls Passage to Marseille, among other things. Gustave is already out of place in 1932, yet we see him thrice more removed: in a story the aged Zero recalls in 1968, recounted by the Author in 1985, read by a young girl in 2014. In 1932 we see the end of M. Gustave’s era, the death of one of his lovers, the war that takes over his hotel and then his world. In 1968, the hotel is falling apart, kept barely alive as a crumbling shadow of itself by Zero (though pointedly not as a link to Gustave, but to his wife, to the time he was happiest, for 1968 Zero is himself a man out of time). In 1968 the triumph of barbarism is assured and by 1985 its victory is almost total: even the children brandish weapons as a young boy interrupts the Author’s address to the camera with a (toy) gunshot (he apologizes shortly thereafter, a slender thread of civility). In the present, even the author is gone, like Zero, like Gustave, he can only be found in a snowy cemetery, civilization kept alive in his book. The girl is alone, but the grave is not abandoned. Keys hang from his tombstone as at a concierge’s desk, left by admirers, despite the degradations of history, there are still some who believe in M. Gustave’s lost world.
This review originally ran at my blog, The End of Cinema, back in 2014.