not in our stars, but in ourselves
What could be more American than getting lost in nostalgia for a world that never really existed? Not much, I feel. And so I think my Independence Day film selection, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is perfectly suited to the holiday – unorthodox though it may seem.
It also may seem strange that I only just watched this today, because it is a movie that seems to have sprung from my own Platonic ideal of cinema. More about that later.
The film plays with frames, in a narrative and in a visual sense. We begin in the present day, in Centralish/Easternish Europe, with a girl in a drab little park, reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel in front of an honorary bust of its author. Cut to the author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, who explains that his book was essentially just a story he heard when he was suffering an attack of nerves in 1968. Cut to 1968, when the author as a younger man (Jude Law) meets the owner of the nearly abandoned Grand Budapest Hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Zero tells the author his story – and we are transported to October 1932.
In the Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in or near the Alps, the Grand Budapest Hotel hustles and bustles. Among its fantastically wealthy Continental clientele is Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton). She is 84 years old, and she has taken the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), as her lover. He is as devoted to her as to any of his wealthy, needy guests – in a word, attentively. He is most devoted to his hotel. It is his kingdom, his home, and his only world. In order to ensure that the hotel is perfect from the lowest level, he takes the new lobby boy, young Zero (Tony Revolori), under his wing. Shortly thereafter, Mme D. dies in mysterious and unexpected circumstances, and various madcap adventures follow. Behind these adventures, of course, it is late 1932, and Europe is changing; and, although we’ve been in something of a fairy tale all this time, war comes, regimes topple, new regimes – guided by drab new ideologies – rise to ironclad power, and the lovely dream of a bygone era is gone.
As you may know, you fellow nostalgics, the setup of Grand Budapest comes from Grand Hotel (1932). The old MGM classic was, more or less, an exercise in studio power. From the lavishly appointed sets to the gowns by Adrian; from the giddy experiments in sound design to the all-too-fabulous simulation of a hustling, bustling Continental hotel; MGM, then mostly under the creative (and otherwise) direction of Irving Thalberg, was showing off. And then, of course, there was the cast. MGM was proud as a peacock of its stable of stars – more stars, you may have heard, than in the heavens – and Grand Hotel is a twinkling little firmament: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lewis Stone are all nearly equally crucial to the plot. If you don’t know those names now, rest assured that audiences in 1932 did, and marveled at a true all-star cast – not one star, a starlet or two, and a host of soon-to-be-forgotten contract players.
Wes Anderson loves to work with a particular group of actors, and of course they are mostly well-known, to say the least. In Grand Budapest, however, he is expertly drawing on each actor’s star power as part of the characterization – in a way that movies haven’t generally attempted since the studio era. In addition to the previously mentioned players, there is Jason Schwartzman as an inept concierge (in 1968, of course), Saoirse Ronan as young Zero’s brave and beloved baker fiancée, Edward Norton as a sentimental but comme il faut military commander, Harvey Keitel as a no-bullshit prisoner and escape artist, Adrien Brody as Mme D.’s dastardly son, Willem Dafoe as an even more dastardly hitman, Jeff Goldblum as a rather exasperated lawyer, and a few other happy surprises I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. It isn’t simply that these actors are playing types. Anderson has woven elements of their own stardom into each role. He has included, in each character, the nebulous qualities of each actor as imagined and understood by the moviegoing public. Thalberg would be delighted.
If you can’t tell, I loved this film. It’s beautiful, it’s an ode to classic Hollywood, it’s just wonderful. But there’s more, too.
Grand Budapest engages, tenderly, lovingly, with a question that has plagued me most of my life. For all the glamour and elegance of the hotel, Europe was in an advanced state of rot. Zero is a refugee, whose family was killed in the aftermath of “the War.” The next war is imminent. As the aged Zero tells the author in 1968, “To be frank, I think [M. Gustave’s] world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!” Sometimes that illusion is the only refuge, in a world where the reality is “shared” property, cruelty, group activity, legislation of deeply private matters, imposed ignorance, purposeful selfishness: an illusion of grace, a memory of beauty, a few “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” It is necessary, sometimes, to allow oneself to remember – or to imagine – a kingdom like the Grand Budapest Hotel. It is necessary to seek refuge in the gorgeous, flickering light of the silver screen, where beautiful people resolve all their problems, one way or another, rather than being dragged interminably through however many circles of purgatory. The Zero of 1968 is alone and lonely in a way that he wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, in 1932. Even if he remembers things too rosily, they really did used to make more sense. He really did have love in his life, and he really did cherish it. Now it’s all gone, all except the building where it happened, and there’s no way to reclaim any of it – simply to live with ghosts.
P.S. I absolutely insist that you watch all the way through the end credits. Thank me later.