So, what with the Oscar nominations, and the fact that this movie popped up (conveniently) on Sky Movies, I decided to re-watch it. It really is a splendid piece of work: charming, witty, laugh-out-loud in places, gorgeously framed and designed and acted. Fiennes' Gustave is a beautiful performance (boo to him not getting Best Actor nod), and I would hazard the only character from any of this year's films who will enter popular consciousness in a longer-term sense. There's also the sheer pleasure of seeing Anderson make his most Andersonian film yet, and registering all the little tropes and signatures of which he is so fond: the uncondescending absorption in kitsch, the use of models, the sly but telling staging of generational misdirection and love. Charm, I have had occasion to say more than once, is really very hard to fake, and this is a thoroughly and deeply charming movie.
The question is: is it anything more? I've read criticism suggesting it is style over substance, all icing and no actual cake. Suggesting it isn't really saying anything. There is lots of running around and some artfully staged gags and set-pieces, but to what end? The first time I saw it, last year, I wondered if it was saying something about American attitudes to Europe, specifically that other-side-of-the-Atlantic sense that there is something old and elegant and a bit faggotty but above all something out-of-time and doomed about the mitteleuropäisch world. Which is fair enough, though a little shallow and caricaturing.
Rewatching it, however, was a revelation. The whole movie erects its filigree gorgeousness across a chasm, and only a fool (like me, evidently) could fail to grasp the nature and depth of this abyss. The repeated scenes, like visual rhymes, in which the old-school cultured European is on a train that is stopped in a field. Peering through the window and wondering 'why are we stopping in a field?' A whole movie structured across a tacit divide: we get the pre-war elegance and the post-war Sovietised shabbiness and downbeat melancholy. But what is the gap, exactly? What story does the film keep telling, in its various ways? Deputy Kovacs, played with swaggering elegance by the Jew, Jeff Goldblum, tries to execute the legal will of his deceased client and for his pains is murdered by the thuggish, skull-faced Jopling (played by the Aryan, Willem Dafoe). Serge X (played by the Jew, Mathieu Amalric) helps Gustave and Zero by packing 'Boy With Apple' for Gustave with the true will in the back, is also murdered by Jopling. Zero himself (played as a young man by the Guatemalan actor Tony Revolori, but realised in old age by
I was put in mind of a sentence from Nabokov's 1948 story 'Symbols and Signs', perhaps my single favourite short story. The characters are two elderly Russian Jews, living in New York after the war and trying to find the wherewithal to keep their deranged, paranoiac, possibly suicidal son in the institution that cares for him. At one point, the mother pulls out a photograph album and looks through the photographs. Her attention is mostly on her son, of course; but the sentence I'm talking about is the last of this quotation, the one concerning Aunt Rosa.
She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he [the son] looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.There's a whole novel in that sentence (I often think Nabokov doesn't get enough credit for the sometimes extraordinary tenderness with which he writes). Rosa was right to worry, we might think; it's just that she worried about the wrong things: she fussed at the near-by trivia and did not see the storm-front rearing over the horizon. I'm not sure that's right, though. We live our life close at hand, after all; the people we care about tend to be near, and they matter a great deal. It's reasonable to hope that the huge impersonal forces of death and horror pass us by, but it's a mistake to obsess about those things. In its attention to detail, to the surface textures and delights of life, even unto the icing, Grand Budapest Hotel understands that. It also understands the abyss, into which the middle years of the century shovelled literally millions of Jewish and Queer corpses. It just doesn't put that centre-frame. When I watched it first I thought the movie charming but lightweight. Now I wonder if it isn't a masterpiece.