In search of male desire in a twee world.
Here’s a thesis: with the singular exception of his animated adventure story, Fantastic Mr. Fox, the movies of Wes Anderson are fundamentally about nice, fiery desire. But while a number of his movies explore this through the conventional terrain of the heterosexual relationship and its discontents — The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom come to mind — others explore more curious expressions of desire, leaving Anderson’s plain and plaintive ladies behind. Shared aesthetic characteristics, from the constantly reprised Cornell boxes to the carefully referenced dead Eastern European novelists, are subject of much ruthless discussion among Anderson acolytes. And, considering Anderson’s diligent cooperation with turning a collection of essays and interviews into a $35 coffee table book, that seems to be the dissection that Anderson embraces. But what are those other, male-centric movies actually about? Most critics, when forced to give something like a serious and meaningful answer, will tell you they’re about loss. While certainly not incorrect — a number of characters in his movies do die — it’s a reading that feels on par with elucidating that Star Wars is about the conflicts between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Okay, but what else?
All Wes Anderson movies are interested in the micromanagement of small communities, from Bottle Rocket’s mislaid gang to The Grand Budapest Hotel’s titular residency, but three of them also present very well-articulated and similarly designed love triangles: Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel. To sketch them chronologically — Rushmore is the story of a high school student, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), hot for teacher (Olivia Williams) and thwarted by friendly neighborhood industrialist (Bill Murray). The Life Aquatic features a pilot, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) hot for journalist (Cate Blanchett), almost thwarted by not-so-friendly neighborhood sea captain (Bill Murray). And The Grand Budapest Hotel stars a bellhop, Zero (Tony Revolori), hot for a girl next door (Saoirse Ronan) and overly-enthusiastic neighborhood concierge (Ralph Fiennes). Played out chronologically, the narrative value of these fixtures descends; almost the entirety of Rushmore, barely a blink in The Grand Budapest Hotel. But unambiguously articulated throughout.
Reading plot devices, particularly the obscenely ubiquitous love triangle, has long been the domain of literature. A popular approach at the turn of the last century, relating narratives to ancient systems of myth, had given way to more structuralist, and later deconstructionist, approaches of disentangling oft-reused plot systems. René Girard’s name is significant here; published in 1961, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure was one of many titles that changed the conventional study of the novel, turning it into a search for patterns and tropes that could answer more fundamental questions about how characters related to each other or even, as Girard himself wrote, “the mystery, transparent yet opaque, of human relations.”
We are helped here, in looking at Anderson’s treatment of desire, by the lack of spontaneity, common in the absurd romantic drama where characters look at each other and are suddenly in love, in Anderson’s design. In Rushmore, for instance, Fischer doesn’t fall for the first grade teacher in some chance encounter: he chases after a Jean Cousteau quote in a book and watches her from afar. Is he in love with her or merely these signifiers? Anderson never quite answers this. He begins to pursue her, in earnest, after his male compadres mock him for his inability to get laid (“Buchan said he’d have already banged her by now,” a friend says about his companionship with another older woman; later, he is refused the male companionship of a few jocks because “there’s gonna be girls there”) and, even then, languishes in the inaccessibility of his subject. When a more realistic object of desire presents herself to Fisher, he is initially unenthused.
Conventionally, we read it as Fisher remaining sore over losing his beloved teacher to a strolling industrialist he had befriended, but the maintenance of his schoolteacher crush never really makes any sense until we see it as a celebration of impossibility. It is a relationship with no chance of meaningful consummation but one that Fisher can, outwardly and to us, pretend that there is. When, famously, she asks Fisher if he imagines that they’re going to actually have sex, he is instantly turned off. Owen Wilson, who actually co-wrote Anderson’s first three movies, mentions in the DVD commentary that the scene was included in order to “puncture Max’s make-believe world.” It is a world established around a heterosexual farce that he engages with only because it requires him to do nothing, really. His heart is only shattered when he sees her with the subject of his real desire, Murray’s Herman Blume.
Before we stumble upon the Cousteau-loving schoolteacher, we meet Fisher’s rival, a weary and widowed Blume, introduced to us in the movie’s first minutes as the “best chapel speaker I have ever seen,” in Fisher’s words. Unlike Williams’ Ms. Cross, who inspires a slight and otherworldly wonder , Fisher is immediately smitten with Blume. Compared to Fisher’s own father, working class and barely present, Blume’s wealth and accomplishment make him even more appealing as a father figure. Few of Anderson’s father figures share any biological relationship to their newfound children, and they present possibility, the creation of a self to become. Anderson presents them as selves to desire becoming and inhabiting. Fitting them into Anderson’s aesthetic universe, they are all obscenely wealthy or, at any rate, possess vast troves of material things. What Anderson-acolyte wouldn’t want to be them? Using a word from a Stendhal novel to describe a copyist of temperament, vaniteux, Girard writes: “A vaniteux will desire any object so long as he is convinced that is it already admired by another person whom he admires.”
In both Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, some element of coincidence is kept in between the angles of Anderson’s love triangles: it is a melodramatic surprise when Anderson’s objects discover the mediator of his desire in bed with its official subject. Why is this? Cinematically, this telegraphs not just a rivalry but the rich contempt of a betrayal. Checking back in on Girard:
The impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator […] The subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model — the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred.
Hatred, at least ostensibly so, is on richer display in The Life Aquatic. Zissou’s wife (Anjelica Huston) is kept peripherally, seeming to exist for no reason greater than stressing the rivalry between Zissou and a more popular captain (Jeff Goldblum). The movie’s main axis of desire, directed at Cate Blanchett’s pregnant journalist, is intensely subdued and competes with a raft of influences to get our attention. The moment of betrayal, for instance, is interrupted by a pirate invasion. It a passion that is curiously bare, similarly, of any passion — it’s little more than a canvas for Zissou’s existential despair. We find out very little about her life outside of her pregnancy and her childhood love of Zissou, and even she is surprised to learn that she is subject of any desire at all: “Really? I thought he hated my guts.”
The bonding between Zissou and Plimpton occupies far more of the movie’s attention, and we’re given to understand that his ability to occupy Zissou’s otherwise slacker attention is out of a vague concern for his legacy. The largely male world of the Belafonte suggests otherwise (its singular woman member, save Keener’s dissatisfied wife, Anne-Marie Sakowitz (Robyn Cohen) is sunbathing and desexed. Her most notable performance is as the ship’s nag. Notably, only the male crew members wear the signature red beanie) is defended rigorously by Willem Dafoe’s fiercely loyal Klaus Daimler, and he regards Plimpton as a rival for Zissou’s affections. Like the male relationships that defined Rushmore, none are actually familial: even Plimpton, ostensibly there as Zissou’s illegitimate child, is revealed not to be, as Zissou is observed as impotent. Instead, Plimpton is introduced to replace the death of another non-biological father figure, whose death sets the film in motion. The movie begins with a shot of Zissou and the late Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), intimate like old lovers — a place inaccessible to any of the coldly depicted heterosexual relationships the movie contains.
The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes, then, the most interesting work in Anderson’s oeuvre: taking the figures of Anderson’s love triangle and inverting them on itself. Revolori’s Zero and Fiennes’ concierge are not rivals, and the love interest, consequently, hardly matters at all. She is used as a brave prop two or three times and dies in a voice over, along with their unseen son, of “an absurd little disease.” When she is introduced, it is in passing, as Zero mentions her as a totem of how much he has learned from his master. When Fiennes’s character meets her, he flirts with her, detached, like playing with a curious toy. Instead of using an invented conflict to fluff out a story of intense masculine admiration, The Grand Budapest Hotel becomes unflaggingly honest about its intentions. There is no hate. It became the first Anderson movie with a protagonist that some read as bisexual.
Fundamentally, it represented something in Anderson’s aesthetic vision long simmering under the surface that clinged clammily to tropes of 19th century literature. While the long suffering marriage in Life Aquatic is permitted to timidly persist in order to allow its hero’s journey to remain funded, its companion in The Grand Budapest Hotel, between Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, is mercifully over as soon as the movie’s plot begins in earnest. From clearcut obsessions with romantic poetry and the twee comfort Anderson discovers in the total male space of the prison cell, it celebrates a world that Anderson keeps his female characters far away from while financing it all. It’s not quite gay. Not yet.