Masterful Naïveté: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson haters often decry his films to be all style and no substance – beautiful films full of charming artifice that are ultimately hollow. I’m afraid with his latest film, they might finally have an example to champion.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a gorgeous piece of work. It is brimming with characters, action, and beautiful composition, and never wastes any of it. To fully catalogue the film’s features (both positive and negative) would require an whole other article. But suffice it to say that by constructing the film in the fiction Eastern European country of Zubrowka, Wes Anderson has can work at his most indulgent and ambitious. Its historical setting is also where the film’s themes come undone.
The film itself is fascinated with Old World propriety. Much like its main character M. Gustave H., it retains a sense of high formalism to pleasure its clients. It tries to acknowledge the temporality of the panache, posture, and performance of a bygone era, but can’t bear to give it up. It’s all very enjoyable to a point. But the story’s political underpinnings undermine its thematics.
The tensions arise from the film’s flimsy footing. It is possible to make good political commentary in fictional worlds. Sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres have illustrated this point well. But by setting the film in a fictional country with real world tendrils, Anderson blurs the distinction and fails to treat history as a tangible influence. Anderson is politically naïve, and has difficulty dealing with the dark and messy side of politics.
The Grand Budapest Hotel uses style to flatten history rather than expand upon it. Fascism is looked down upon primarily for its lack of style rather than its brutality. Edward Norton’s character is presented as an upstanding citizen merely doing his duty as the leader of a fascist group. Socialism is skirted around, briefly and indirectly referenced with a mention of the hotel becoming “common property.” The country’s history of occupation and war is obfuscated rather than dealt directly, creating an aura of political intrigue for narrative convenience. The film has trouble naming the very forces that eradicate the past it glorifies and prompt its nostalgia.
In trying to explore the societal aspects of the world it builds, it only begrudgingly acknowledges the necessity of dealing with politics as well. But its half-hearted attempt to reckon with the fascists scuffing the luxury of the world end up mere abstractions. It fails to recognize the horror within the concepts it uses.
Thus The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s themes of aesthetic artifice are undercut but the films lack of political aptitude. Can I say a film is worth watching when it is hollow? It has the best of intentions. It is not hollow out of laziness, but mere naïveté. This is less New Sincerity and more New Naïvety.
This is a film that literally tries to have its cake and eat it too. It refers to political actions without fully understanding or representing them. The decadent hotel is therefore the perfect metonym of the whole film, illustrating the luster and majesty of the film’s style and the emptiness that underpins the decadence. Saying it’s empty is a slight mislabeling, as there are thematics surrounding the nature of artifice at play. But it’s the political underpinnings that drains the film of its thematic weight.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if this was Anderson’s intention. The film does deal with the transmission and reception of texts, with multiple frame stories gilding the narrative. It’s possibly arguable that the perspective the film is merely representing the nostalgic layers that permeate textual reproduction.