No one is perfect, neither living people nor fictional people. We must forgive our friends much, and we must forgive our favorite characters much, as well. We forgive our friends for sins they do not confess, because we want God to forgive the sins we do not confess, and we forgive the sins of our favorite characters even while they are ignorant of what they have done. Or else the creators of our favorite characters are ignorant of what they have allowed their heroes to get away with.
I am eager to not be misunderstood. I am not often a relativist.
While our favorite characters fail us and let us down, perhaps you have also witnessed a character act viciously and thought to yourself, “While this does not appear to be a dream sequence, I am not content that what I am seeing is what is real. What I am seeing seems to be about historical events, but is not, in fact, occurring historically within the narrative of this story.” Perhaps you are no sentimentalist, and yet, at times, you come to love a character very much and when they commit a sin on the screen, you think, “For this person, this is not a sin. The depiction of this sin is a poetic reference to something which is righteous, and what is righteous is real.” You do not feel that you are making an exception for the character’s sin, but that the event of the sin never took place.
In Zechariah 9, we find the following mystery:
The Lord of hosts will defend them;
They shall devour and subdue with slingstones.
They shall drink and roar as if with wine;
They shall be filled with blood like basins,
Like the corners of the altar.
The Lord their God will save them in that day,
As the flock of His people.
When the prophet describes the passion of Israel in battle, their tenacity can only be described in terms of sin. “They shall drink and roar as if with wine” brings together the ferocious warrior and the raging drunkard. Zechariah portrays the virtue of Israel by way of vice.
The prophet uses the things which are not to describe the things which are.
Granted, such artistry and such a hermeneutic rest precariously on a ledge overlooking a precipitous fall, although from such a vantage point, the view is breathtaking. To make such a call— to pronounce plain events transpiring on the screen (or the text) as not-historical to the otherwise historical characters— is generally not prompted through any kind of material cue, but through intuition. Such interpretations will never satisfy the literal-minded (though in my book, “literal-minded” is a synonym for “displeased”), though I’ll risk an air of arrogance to say that critics are often lousy with poetic logic and that it takes a co-creator to recognize ripples of suprarationality in a fellow’s work. The critic does not understand the limitations of image or word quite like the maker, who is never so happy with his work that he wants to linger on it a minute longer than necessary. The maker longs for his work to be free of himself, to Sabbath his hands away from the creation, liberating it, and see what will become of his birds and trees and little clay people. Good interpretation is like unto good creation— simultaneously formed and wild, reasonable but dangerously speculative. Good interpretation avoids everything good fiction avoids, but especially inevitability. Everything which is inevitable is ugly. Goodness is free.
I only bring all this up to defend Monsieur Gustave H., the lecherous hero of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Nothing I’ve seen in the last several years has sustained my interest or recurred so frequently in my daydreams as this film. The Grand Budapest Hotel is furrowed with sad regret over the magnitude of cultural losses the West suffered in and after the French Revolution, and Gustave has appointed himself not only the Dead West’s chief mourner, but the last genuine relic of a glorious Christian past.
I want very badly to say he is the relic, the widower of the West, and so does Gustave, though the truth is he has missed his era by nearly a hundred and fifty years. We infer his education was autodidactic and that every time he looked up from a stolen copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the world seemed just a touch less colorful than the last. Gustave does not come from money, though he has sympathetically observed rich rules of decorum from guides to manners, and like Downton Abbey’s Carson or Spratt, elaborately and sincerely performs the role of ancient aristocrat so that authentic aristocrats have something to strive for. Gustave is like David Bentley Hart’s nameless priest from the short, “The House of Apollo.” He is neither hermetic, nor a culture warrior. Gustave is powerless to coerce the world into regaining its manners, but neither is he a hermit. He occupies a strange middle-ground. Like a madman holding a prophetic sign on the corner of Broadway and 42nd, Gustave represents boundless personal possibility. Gustave is a would-be time traveler, a transcendent. He has regained through study what others discarded or lost through sloth and avarice a century ago. He is not a creature of his own imagination, but an homage to what good can be accomplished through disciplined nostalgia.
He is also, as I mentioned, a lech and a self-professed homosexual. So far as his taste in women, the older the better, though we are not supposed to understand Gustave to suffer from the perversities of gerontophilia, because as far as he is concerned, anything older is better. He takes old ladies to bed to commune with something which has been made venerable by age, to touch someone who has touched someone who lived through a sane era of human history. New things disgust Gustave. When stealing the van Eyck-esque “Boy With Apple,” Gustave approaches the painting with reverence and says:
This is van Hoytl’s exquisite portrayal of a beautiful boy on the cusp of manhood. Blond, smooth. Skin as white as that milk. Of impeccable provenance. One of the last in private hands — and, unquestionably, the best. It’s a masterpiece. The rest of this shit is worthless junk.
After which he removes the Renaissance-esque “Boy” and replaces it with some “worthless junk,” namely an Egon Schiele knock-off which depicts two nude women fooling around. Gustave does not tolerate the avant-garde or the progressive. He finds democratic ideals trashy and tasteless. Contra Tony Kushner, Gustave admits nothing noble or angelic about homosexuality per se, but regards homosexuality as an emblem of decadence; Gustave is homosexual in protest of the chloroformed aesthetics of Modernism. Let us grant this is all, at very least, an exceedingly strange way of accessing the past, although the strangest aspects of almost every person tend to involve individual, private rituals of accessing the past.
Gustave is both a character and caricature. At times he is real, at times a cartoon. The sadness of the film is the sadness of Gustave, because in the end, he is disappointed to know that there is no bona fide aristocratic impulse at work within him. His performance is no pretense, but in the privacy of his own thought, he sometimes returns to the vulgarities of what is common and contemporary. The performance sometimes exhausts him. After Gustave talks down the Gestapo from his train car, he says to Zero, as they exit:
You see? There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant — Oh, f___ it.
At other times, Gustave suddenly interrupts a poetry recitation with obscenity and the effect is comic because we see him strain between what he is and what he would like to be. The mulberry hue of his uniform affects royalty, but seems just short of the rich color a true king could demand. After Gustave “makes it” in the end, the shade of his dress deepens into a dark purple, and the red piping on the edges of his concierge costume become a scarlet necktie.
While his old life is a strenuous reach for the stars, he is not embarrassed of it once enjoying the splendors of his new life. It is not for sensual pleasure that Gustave wishes he were born two hundred years ago, with twenty thousand acres to his name and two hundred thousand per annum. Rather, he wants such things for reasons of tradition, and no one in his era believes a just world and an aristocratic world can coincide. Gustave performs ceremonies of hygiene and dress for old dignity’s sake, and it just so happens that old dignity was interested in Chambord and Mazlo and Mellerio. Gustave can’t be faulted for wanting to play a silver-spooned old man, if in fact such men have something significant to offer the world.
It may be Gustave is, within the historical narrative of the Hotel, all the debauched things the camera makes him out to be. After all, Wes Anderson’s oeuvre tends to suggest that adultery is nothing more than America’s favorite naughty hobby, and Moonrise Kingdom went so far as to romanticize divorce. Though I prefer to read Gustave slant. I do not call this a generous interpretation, for inasmuch as Gustave’s bedchamber hobbies are historical, they are sinful and wrong. But, as a classicist and a fond reader of Edmund Burke, I hope there is something noble beneath it all which I am meant to see. The only way to tell an ineffable story is to tell it wrong, and if Gustave is a pervert, Anderson nonetheless performs the remarkable trick of showing his vices in order to reveal his virtues.