How Wes Anderson’s Adorable Nostalgia became The Tidy Horror of The Grand Budapest Hotel

*First published in The Stake

We have a soft spot for Wes Anderson here at the Stake. He weaves a potent spell of nostalgia in all his films — even nostalgia for pasts that have never existed. Moonrise Kingdom, his 2013 gem, played out in era of Anderson’s own longing and creation. In its vaguely 1960’s world, he wove a tender story of young love, lavishing every shot with precise care. I had great hopes that his new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, would strike a similar chord, perhaps rising to the level of my favorite Anderson film, Rushmore. Both movies explored youth’s agonizing desire to mature, and shared the charming awkwardness that is Anderson’s trademark.

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with typical Andersonian nostalgia for a lost world — this time, the glory days of an aging European hotel. But dreams of a second Moonrise Kingdom burst like bubbles when an early shot in the film showed M. Gustave, the concierge and protagonist, reciting poetry while receiving fellatio from an old lady on her knees. Her head bobbed on his crotch while his voice soared, and I was left in a sea of confusion. No matter how many dainty details there were — Gustave’s sumptuous surroundings, his silk robe, his mellifluous voice — raunch is raunch and it was unexpected.

This is the movie’s rhythm, sugar coating everything in a veneer of ganache frosting, then jolting viewers with electrifying crassness and violence. Another disturbing scene came half way into the film. Jopling, a sadistic assassin played by Willem Defoe, pursues an honorable lawyer into an art museum. After cornering the man, Jopling deliberately cuts off the lawyer’s fingers by slamming a metal door on his knuckles. His fingers fall onto a snow bank outside. After a few moments (the rest of the murder occurs off-screen), the assassin steps outside, gathers up the severed fingers and zips off on a tiny motorcycle, grinning like a vicious cartoon.

Jopling’s remorseless violence is jarring, repulsive, and strangely sanitized by Anderson’s visual style. The same uncomfortable tension is present in the movie’s backdrop: a slow-burning fascist revolution in the hotel’s fictional European home state. It’s clearly Anderson’s tidy, dollhouse version of World War II, but the menace and growing horror is portrayed with the same lightness of touch as a shot of an exquisite pastry. Rendering Jopling as a twee villain and checkpoint guards as uniformed busybodies brought a weightless charm that was profoundly dismissive.

Confronted with this dilemma, I closed down. Part of me understood that he was treating a horrific moment as he treats everything else in his films — with dainty, awkward artistry. But while I could admire that strict adherence to his own rules, I still checked out. Disregard for the pain and suffering of others is nothing to admire, no matter how artfully rendered.

My mood grew darker as I sat in the theater. I grew distracted and my thoughts churned over aggravating chores and to-do lists to avoid the film. I was tempted to walk out, but as I’ve seen all of Anderson’s films, I was committed to staying to the end.

And I’m glad I did, because one scene saved it all. As the film nears its climax, M. Gustave the concierge is hanging by his fingernails from the edge of a cliff. The assassin Jopling stands over him, grinning like a wolf and ready to crush the dangling man’s fingers with a jackboot. Gustave hangs, staring up at his executioner — and instead of begging or crying for his life, he does a curious thing. He begins to recite poetry. His voice is free and clear, and he continues through the verse even as he looks down into the abyss. Certain death lies waiting, just below his feet, but in the world of poetry he finds a way out of animal terror into a higher plane through the use of one’s mind. Put another way, through that act of tremendous will he becomes noble.

In a moment of superb desperation, he fled to a more polite world, where lines are finely crafted and drama is safely contained. He mastered his terror and agony and in doing so cheated his murderer out of the satisfaction of cowering prey. Gustave created an illusion in his mind, and alleviated very real suffering. He would have gone on reciting poetry all the way down.

It was then I understood the dark and troubling juxtapositions of the film. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s poetry — his way of whistling in the dark. All his films are elaborate hoaxes, set in times that never truly existed, and that is their power. They charm us into forgetting how brutal life is, just as so much poetry and art can do.

Those dismembered fingers lying in the snow, and the assassin’s pleasure in violence are meant to be disturbing. Anderson’s adorable world of knickknacks and nostalgia crossed a line in showing those scenes, and in that moment, violence became absurd. Within the laws of his own world-making, Anderson can only stretch so far before his art begins to break down. It becomes absurd.

Gustave tipping over the edge of the cliff, and all the violence that precedes it, raises a profound question. When is art absurd and when is it noble? Gustave is an absurd character, but proudly spouting poetry in the face of a sadist made him noble.

He proved to be the strongest character in the film because he could slip into the world of art whenever he needed. It allowed him to act, love and live out his life without cowering in a corner as the world turned dark.

Gustave did not die that day on the cliff face. He returned to his hotel. And surprisingly, he gave me insight into the power and purpose of art. Be it poetry, painting or any other form, art is something strong. It amuses, and makes our lives sweeter, but most of all, it provides refuge in terrible hours. The art we turn to can be anything; for Gustave, it was poetry. For Zero, Gustave’s trusty bellhop sidekick, it became The Grand Budapest Hotel itself.

For many of us, that art is Anderson’s films. His imaginative and nostalgic worlds create a curious refuge. The zany lives of the characters who populate his worlds are a call to embrace — and live — the art we love the most.

writing one small line at a time

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