A Rare Example of Honesty in Wes Anderson’s Nostalgia

By  · Published on March 18th, 2014

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wes Anderson’saspect ratios. On one tier is The Author (Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law), who in 1985 publishes his memories of staying at the dwindling (yet grand) Budapest and meeting its enigmatic owner. On that second tier is said owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori), who in 1968 reminisces on his bittersweet years at the hotel between the wars, during his tutelage under M. Gustave H. (Ralph Feinnes).

The final tier of nostalgia is Gustave’s, who carefully maintains the hotel strictly in line with a vision of an old Europe that is starting to crumble at the promise of yet another brutal global conflict. Unlike these prior two tiers, Gustave’s nostalgia is never granted the concrete benefit of its own flashback. His desperate hold on the facade is only alluded to, and finally acknowledged in one brief part of a voiceover during the film’s final moments. Gustave, has, in a way, made the Grand Budapest into a fantasy that hardly corresponds to (and is frequently threatened by) the dark and foreboding reality existing outside its walls.

Useful comparisons have been made alleging that Gustave is a stand-in for Anderson himself, who similarly constructs intricately detailed, strictly realized, and intoxicating worlds that are also palpably anachronistic. Yet if we look at Anderson’s filmography more broadly, we can see that Grand Budapest is yet another shift in Anderson’s ongoing obsession not just with nostalgic periods, objects, and styles, but with making sense of the ways that nostalgia creates in us a profound yet foggy relationship to the past.

In her thought-provoking critique of Wes Anderson’s work, Stepanie Zacharek writes, “His ascent in pop culture has coincided roughly with the renewed popularity of hand-knitting as a hobby.” While Zacahrek uses the connection to explain the deliberate seam-centric (rather than seamless) character of Anderson’s work, this point also speaks to Anderson’s preference for the artisanal and the material. As a filmmaker who carefully organizes the frame with recognizable objects of the recent past, his work has spoken to a young-ish audience forced to negotiate between the ubiquity of digital information against the growing nostalgic value of their analog counterparts. The phonograph and the dusty hard-bound library are objects that reappear in Anderson’s work, and their fetish value increases as they provide ever greater respite from the growing tyranny of the digital audio file and the computer tablet.

Anderson’s recycling of such objects as props have given some of his films a lack of historical specificity. The director’s never-identified-as-such New York City in The Royal Tenenbaums is devoid of any contemporary distractions that would date the film, yet the Tenenbaum household is forever enshrined in some indefinite past era, replete with cabinets of curiosity whose findings denote an array of decades of origin. Neither the past nor the present are definite in this film. But it’s the past that’s richer and more heavily on display. Arguably more so than any live-action world Anderson has yet created, The Royal Tenenbaums obscures the specificity of the past in order to fully realize a collision of styles from the third quarter of the 20th century – in other words, a fantasy of New York that never quite existed, and a illustrious household that serves as a schizophrenic tomb of stuff once old/now hip.

Imitators and borrowers of Anderson’s much-parodied style have simply assumed this approach to production design as a given in creating the world of a film. The films of Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) are the most evident offenders in this regard, as they collapse decades of style into a feature-length ironic gesture.

But Wes Anderson’s films often foreground the perspective through which such an ahistorical past is envisioned. Rushmore’s Max Fisher, for example, is a prototypical Anderson character, and perhaps (as John Swansburg suggests) an early stand-in for Anderson himself. He is a figure dissatisfied with his placement in a contemporary world, a character who would rather be distracted by the seeming promises of adulthood, the fantasy of an affair with his own Mrs. Robinson, and extracurricular activities and clubs that evoke the height of the Boy Scout era. Rushmore takes place, ostensibly, in the present, but that matters little when the soundtrack of Max’s life is accompanied by The Who.

When Max finally stages his play “Heaven and Hell” at Rushmore’s end, his portrayal of Vietnam is not informed by direct or experiential knowledge (or even secondhand knowledge beyond the fact that Herman (Bill Murray) is a vet), but is instead colored by depictions of the war in pop culture, namely Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. When we become nostalgic for the past (especially a past in which we didn’t live), the question of “Whose past is it?” always persists.

This question has permeated Anderson’s past two films more overtly than in any of his previous works. Unlike any film the director has made before, both Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel feature title cards denoting the dates of specific events – Moonrise in 1965, and Grand Budapest in 1985, 1968, and (most thoroughly) 1932. But rather than construct a recognizably historical account of any of these particular years, Anderson overtly frames the past through cinema itself, using cotemporaneous references to stylize the era he re-imagines. The result is a strikingly honest, even authentic approach to nostalgia: rather than pursue some sort of verisimilitude, which assumes that cinema can adequately represent or even speak for past directly, Anderson instead constructs the past through the hazy lenses by which we already view it: other persons; versions of it.

Where Moonrise Kingdom envisioned 1965 New England by way of Godard’s Pierrot le fou, Anderson’s 1932 is similarly envisioned through the films of the era depicted. Allusions to 1930s French cinema are potent, from the Grand Illusion-like prison escape to Harvey Keitel’s tattoo-decorated outlaw reminiscent of L’Atalante to the film’s larger slapstick dance over a valuable art object while the horrors of another war loom on the horizon, the last of which structures the entire film as a more overt and far less urgent take on the class satire of The Rules of the Game.

But Anderson bridges European styles with the other side of the filmmaking ocean: Edmund Goulding’s 1932 Grand Hotel, a Hollywood counterpart to French poetic realism. With its shifting tragicomic tone, meticulous realization of the drama between large cast of stars on an ambitiously produced studio rendering of a hotel, and gorgeous composition with the recently-established Academy ratio, Grand Hotel is a prime work of Old Hollywood between the wars, and a film that believed sincerely in the value of interpersonal honor, (some) social mobility, and the prime importance of class and personality – values that seem ancient today, but ones that Gustave H. holds onto desperately.

In the very last moments of Grand Budapest Hotel, we return the film’s bookending framework of an anonymous young woman reading the now-deceased author’s work. Like much of Anderson’s work, it’s hard to tell whether or not this setting meant to take place in present day. But in the case of the Russian doll structure of Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s hard to remember that this is the framework in which we started in at all, before we took a journey through compounding character flashbacks and testimonies in order to reach the tale of Gustave H. As is often the case with nostalgia, it’s difficult to always know for certain whose past it is we’re looking through.