The Last Ruritanian Picture Show

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I’ve not been doing much blogging over the past two months. Truth be told, I haven’t been doing much in the way of writing period for the last little while. It’s been a combination of the usual things: brain-scorching heat, chaotic sleep schedules, and good ol’ fashioned depression have all done their part to sap what little will I normally have to create things. However, with Spooktober rapidly approaching, I do want to kick this blog back into gear (as well as work on a little something of my own). To that end, I’d like to blither on for a little bit about one of my few pick-me-up movies.

I’m not really a big fan of Wes Anderson’s work. I know people like to throw around the words “twee” or “pretentious” when discussing his filmography, and while I understand the impulse behind these words, I’ve always thought that there’s too much of an element of contempt to them, of a dislike embodied as a sneer. Personally, when I watch things like The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, I find that the level of artifice Anderson puts into his cinematic worlds generally distracts rather than enthralls me. I call it being “mannered,” though I suppose that definition might not be any better than the others I mentioned.

There is one exception, however. I unabashedly love The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s 2014 effort. It’s a caper film, set in a 1932 in a Mitteleuropan never-was called Zubrowka, told through an over-dinner conversation in 1968, a novelization of the conversation in 1985, and the reading of said novel in the present. The cast is fantastic, particularly Ralph Fiennes as the foppishly vulgar Monsieur Gustave H., concierge of the titular hotel, and the film has a deft touch with both physical and scripted verbal comedy, both arts that are sadly in decline these days. I could go on for pages and pages about the ins and outs of the film, but there are just two points I want to touch on.

One of the reasons I like The Grand Budapest Hotel so much is because it is the first Wes Anderson film I’ve seen where I felt the artifice worked in its favor. A lot has been made of the film’s roots in the writings of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (and truth be told, I much prefer the writing of Zweig’s contemporary and occasional friend Joseph Roth), but I’ve always seen the film working more in the tradition of Ruritainain adventure stories. To summarize very briefly, “Ruritanian” stories are a tradition of English-language popular literature dating back to the end of the 19th century. The first of these stories was Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), which depicted the adventures of a foppish young English man who finds himself ensnarled in a palace intrigue in the Eastern European backwater of Ruritania, a forgotten statelet loosely based on contemporary Romania. These stories are light adventure fare, with the Western European or American protagonist dropping into the some Germanic/Magyar/Slavic kingdom, getting himself involves in any manner of masquerades, palace intrigues, swordfights, schemes, and mistaken-identity romances amid a highly fancified backdrop, before saving the day and returning home safe and sound. It’s a theme that grew in popularity with the rise of cheap popular literature and film, and while traditional Ruritanias died out in the decades after the Second World War, you can still see their influence here and there in science fiction and fantasy.

While The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t have the outsider protagonist, the whole film is very much in the Ruritanian tradition of fantasy Europes. It isn’t a depiction of interwar Eastern Europe so much as it is Anderson’s knowing dream of interwar Eastern Europe, and as such Anderson joyfully pushes the irreality of his setting to the limits. Zubrowka is the sort of place where a friendly militia captain will turn up, and it’ll be Edward Norton in a mustache with his American voice, or where the prisoner “Ludwig” is played by Harvey Keitel at his Noo Yawkiest. Adrien Brody is the film’s heavy. And I dare anyone to make any sense of the film’s relation to actual history.

However, the film is not all fun and games. Indeed, this is the only film of Anderson’s I’ve yet seen that manages to handle tragedy properly. His previous films have dealt in deaths and suicides, but they’ve always been awkwardly handled, the tones of his movies serving to paper over the emotional impact too quickly. Here, the tragedy comes after the end of the story, when good has triumphed and the virtuous have received their rewards, as the characters slide into the Second World War. In the last five minutes of the film, the tragedy unspools both forwards and backwards in time, completely changing the story. The adventures of the previous ninety minutes begin to look like a consolation, an attempt by a lost man to reimagine history having gone “right” way, only to end in failure. As the film makes one final ascension through the years, the damage of the tragedy radiates outwards, in a 1968 with a second-rate Grand Budapest run by Zubrowka’s communist government, a 1985 where the author is the sole keeper of the hotel’s memory (and is himself unknowingly standing on the precipice of another era of transformation and loss), and finally in the present day, with the young reader in a graveyard in December with her book.

A silly caper film that ends with the numbing awareness of the greatest mass death in history. I suppose that says a lot about me, doesn’t it?

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