Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Wes Anderson and Shakespeare: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Even if you've never seen a Wes Anderson film, you're probably familiar with his visual style. Bright colours and beautiful, ambitious settings work with deliberate, often symmetrical composition of the frame to create a distinctive, stylistic picture that mirrors the wonderful worlds he shows us.

Anderson's critics have called this style superficial, a 'clever' artfulness that disguises films with no real meaning. But I challenge anyone to call his 2014 hit The Grand Budapest Hotel meaningless.

In case you haven't seen it, the film depicts the decline of an opulent hotel in the austere world of Soviet Russia, alongside the final years of its head concierge, M. Gustave. The story follows Gustave and his young protege Zero as they navigate this harsh environment while trying to keep the hotel running.

So where does Shakespeare come in? 

Towards the end of his writing career, William Shakespeare penned four plays that some scholars separate from the rest. Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest

These are plays that subvert what we've come to expect from the bard. There are always lovers, but they are not central to the plot like in his comedies. There are tragic elements, but rather than consuming and killing all the characters, those tragedies are solved by the end. For want of a better term, these four plays are often called 'romances', but I prefer the more obvious term 'tragicomedies.'

But what does this have to do with Wes Anderson? Well, there are some more specific tropes that these later plays share. Bear with me while I borrow from Wikipedia: 'The romances call for spectacular effects to be shown... opulent interior and exterior scenery, dream settings and the illusion of time passing.' Sound familiar?

As the film goes on, the charming, comic world of the extravagant hotel clashes with the cold, oppressive, tragic world of 20th Century Russia. Bright colours fade to pastels, and the beauty of the hotel's symmetry gives way to military, institutional symmetrical order. The Grand Budapest Hotel, like other Anderson films, is itself a tragicomedy.

But it's more than just visual style.

There are similarities in plot and content too. As mentioned above, the film features a pair of lovers (Zero and Agatha) whose love story is not central to the plot. All of Shakespeare's tragicomedies contain families who have been torn apart; we learn late on in the movie that Zero himself is a refugee from the conflict in the middle east, and at least some of his relatives are dead.

Fantastical settings, getting lost, taking shelter in harsh environments, being chased, usurped and undermined - all of these are common to both Shakespeare's late romances and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it is at the end of the film (spoilers ahead) that Anderson allies himself most closely with the Shakespearean canon, and the genre of tragicomedy.

As the old saying goes - if there's a wedding at the end, it's a comedy; if everyone dies at the end, it's a tragedy. Wes Anderson puts both at the end of his film. Zero and Agatha get married, but we find out from the narrative of an older Zero that both Agatha and Gustave died not long after that event. Tragedy and comedy juxtaposed in the starkest of ways.

But why?

Why has Wes Anderson (deliberately or not) chosen Shakespearean tragicomedy as the genre for his film? The simple answer is form following function. The script, to all intents and purposes, is a comedy. But it's a story about the realest tragedy of all: the relentlessness of time.

By the movie's end, many of the characters are dead, and Zero is an old man. In the outermost frame of the narrative, even Jude Law's author character is dead. The hotel is the last bastion of a bygone era, left half-empty and ravaged by the years.

But I think Wes Anderson is cleverer than that.

The plots of Shakespeare's tragedies can be described as redemptive. Prospero is re-instated as Duke of Milan; Cymbeline and her daughter are reconciled. The ostensible villains must experience tragedy in order to come out the other side as if they were in a comedy all along.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the other way round. We are faced with likeable characters for whom tragedy is inevitable. The adventure they go on isn't their punishment for being bad, it's the comedy that keeps the darkness at bay.

At one point M. Gustave himself says: "There are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide, in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh fuck it." That's what Anderson wants to show us through his use of both tragic and comic devices. The film is a tragicomedy because life is a tragicomedy. We must face the inevitability of time, but try to have fun along the way.

If you've made it this far, thanks very much for your time and attention. Since films lend themselves to the video essay format, here's one I came across halfway through writing this. Thanks again, and see you next time.