People have very good taste in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cakes are consumed lovingly. Wine is drunk and discussed in a devilishly clever way, as our friend Kailyn has explained. At the center of it all is a very discerning white man, Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel and the most tasteful person of all, who struggles, along with his interlocutor Zero, to clear his name in the face of an enormous conspiracy by vulgar arrivistes and a rising Nazi-style party.
It goes without saying that Wes Anderson's always been a retro director. The general jewel-box mise-en-scène and the vaguely Euro intelligentsia that drifts through it have always had an implicit connection to some imaginary aristocratic past. The Grand Budapest Hotel clears away all of the vagueness. First, obviously, it plunges right into the interwar period, a much more past past than that of Moonrise Kingdom's Kennedy era. Second, and more to the point, it's full-throatedly reactionary.
Obviously it's more complicated than that—the pseudo-Nazis of the movie are, strictly speaking, just as reactionary as the main characters—but the movie's elegy for a lost world of manners and sophistication has a lot more bite than Anderson's previous movies. Gustave H. expends an awful lot of air being hypercompetent, knowing every wine and every cake that darkens his doorstep, hating kitsch, hating the uncivilized, the unenlightened, and despite the movie's obligatory attempts to make him a bit of a buffoon—well, just witness the way he apologies for colonialism before the climax. That's nothing if not a ringing endorsement of manners. You get the sense that the doomed mission of this concierge, to maintain his hotel, and the broader mission of the hotel itself, to preserve taste and civilization, to carve out a safe space for superficiality, is a kind of heroism. And, following from this, you get the sense that Anderson is mourning a world without taste. Gently, maybe, but about half as gently as normal. Anderson has always seemed like he was essentially a craftsman, but with Grand Budapest we finally learn at least one thing about his real beliefs: he genuinely believes that vulgarity, as it was understood in the 30s, is a plague. He really does hate the world. All the retro stuff is more than just talk.
There is, however, a key to the movie that opens up another perspective. In an obituary, flashed on the screen, that announces the death of Tilda Swinton's character, there is a brief biographical note. In this note a viewer with access to a pause button can note that Tilda's character, Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgroffe und Taxis, was orphaned when she was a child. The newspaper coyly gives the respective causes of her parents' deaths in a parenthetical: "(herring, botulism)." This echoes another famously laconic parenthetical: "(picnic, lightning)", the circumstances of the death of Humbert Humbert's mother in Lolita.
This on its own isn't enough to sustain an interpretation, of course, but when considered in conjunction with the other features of Grand Budapest it starts to smell an awful lot like Nabokov. The nobility of an imaginary Eastern European empire? The vulgarity and inevitability of fascism? Mistaken identities, grisly coincidences, clues hidden in the depths of the errata? Aesthetic work as puzzle box? To say nothing of the fact that the whole story of the film is reported to the audience by a reader, reading a book by an author, who had the story told to him by the aged Zero, who, as you might expect by now, reports on an awful lot of things he could never actually have seen.
With all of this in mind, the movie seems like the first one in Wes Anderson's whole corpus to provide motivation for the dollhouse sets and poised compositions: they are pointedly artificial because this movie is about artifice. Which is to say that the movie is a gentle jab at Anderson's whole aesthetic, and therefore, more broadly, at taste itself. It's all an illusion, it's just l'air de panache. There's a massive weight of irony in this movie to counterbalance its apparently reactionary moral.
Of course, that's only an interpretation, and the "und Taxis" in the name of Tilda's character, lifted from The Crying of Lot 49, reminds us that the resemblance to Nabokov could just be a vast coincidence after all. Either a transcendent meaning or only the earth.
That, essentially, is the problem with Grand Budapest: its ironic undercurrent feels more like a defense mechanism than a genuine component of the work. In one register this is a clever, reflective movie about Wes Anderson's work, but in a much more obvious one it's a screed against the vulgarity of the modern world, which is personified artlessly as the SS. You have to do a lot of interpretive work to turn up its debt to Nabokov, but there's an actual dedication at the end of the movie to Stefan Zweig, one of prewar Vienna's main mythologizers. (Prewar Vienna seems like a popular place for Generation X to go when it wants to critique the vulgarity of the modern world. Remember The Kraus Project?)
We've seen this kind of dual register from other Gen-X luminaries—a few months ago we published an article about the ironic subtext of Her, another movie that comes on like an anti-modern rant. There as here, the irony that inverts the movie is buried in references—to transhumanism, to cybernetics, to Spike Jonze's other movies. It's the province of a small, connoisseurial audience. Gustave H.'s people, in other words. Irony is getting smaller and smaller. Which might seem out of character for as committed an ironist as Wes Anderson, but put in context it actually puts his movie in a very familiar lineage.
In the 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace explains a few things to us. One is that the cultural bugbear called "irony" was originally an insurgent strategy, a fresh way to critique the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and so on. Another is that by the publication date of the essay, irony had become hip and hegemonic; it was no longer the subversive tactic of Altman and Pynchon but rather the default register of literary elites across America. It was a pose, a reflex, an automatic deadpan sneer. (This is leaving out the roughly 35 pages of this 42-page essay that are just TV criticism.) Since then the injunction has been to distance ourselves from irony, to be always more earnest and sincere. I'm not saying that Anderson has taken his cues from DFW, exactly, only that exalting sincerity and earnestness is a pretty pervasive trend today.
The assumption is that the unironic future will contain a lot of people like John Darnielle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Green, scribbly fonts and ukuleles and handheld DSLR footage of the sun flickering through trees and so on. But I think it's worth reminding ourselves that sincerity is not necessarily nice. It might not even be smarmy, which Tom Scocca has pointed out is a way to be vindictive while pretending to be nice. It might be vindictive, simply and blandly.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a case in point—it's suppressed the irony reflex to the best of its ability. Irony is still there, but in all its erudition it's only detectable by the very people who will be sympathetic to the movie's most overt and vindictive message. The movie clearly wants to have its (Mendl's) cake and eat it too.
The point of all this is to say that if Anderson is at all symptomatic of the change Generation X is undergoing right now—and I think he is, if you consider the recent Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Jonze and Jim Jarmusch (although that last one is an oldster)—then maybe the end product of DFW's suppression of irony isn't a series of books and movies that will induce us to hug strangers at the supermarket. Maybe it's just anger. Maybe, if we finally purge irony, Generation X will reveal itself as a bunch of coots. There's nothing more sincere than a coot.