Monday, April 27, 2015

Is the Author Dead?: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) has been nominated for and received numerous awards-- so many, in fact, that the list gets its own Wikipedia page. The film is based off of the works of Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, with Anderson and his frequent co-writer, Hugo Guinness, behind the screenplay.

The majority of the film takes place in the 1930s, but this narrative is framed by a nesting doll narrative structure that merits study.

Frame Story Layers:

The film opens with the first frame, a girl entering a cemetery. She sits on a bench near the tomb of a writer. The slab does not have an actual name engraved on it: instead, it simply reads, "Author." As the girl opens the book, entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel, we/the audience enter into the next frame narrative.

In this second frame, the Author discusses how stories are brought to writers, if they look and listen carefully enough. In the midst of this mini-speech, a small boy fires a toy pistol at the Author, who cries, "Don't do it!" Moments later, the boy sits on the Author's lap as though nothing has happened. The Author's voice opens his tale and takes us back to yet another layer of the story, how he met and learned about Mr. Zero Moustafa, the owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

This layer is the most developed of the frame layers. Here, we meet the Author in the 1960s as he settled into a run-down version of the Budapest Hotel. He meets the mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa, who agrees to share his story with the Author over dinner. Mr. Moustafa's story opens the narrative on M. Gustave, whose narrative, alongside a young Zero's, takes the principle of the film.

In the concluding scenes, these layers are reversed. When Gustave's story finishes, we cut back to the 1960s, where Mr. Moustafa and the Author part ways, then on to a silent, seated Author, and finally, to the girl in the cemetery. The film finishes on this last scene.


If the frame layers are not meant to carry additional meaning or lenses through which to view the film, why would the director have included them? The layers appear unconnected and random-- especially the role of the boy in the Author's layer. Upon examining the layers, however, a conversation about the role of the author and changing times becomes evident.

In studying this particular set of frames, it is easier to find themes and connections by starting with the frame closest to the principle narrative, that of Gustave H and Zero. In this main narrative, the emphasis is placed on the changing of time and trends; Gustave's meticulous, careful, and elite behavior seem out of place already with the changing world around him.

The next layer is the 1960s, where the Author and Moustafa converse about the changing world. Moustafa says, "There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. [. . .] He (Gustave) was one of them." Gustave was part of a long gone generation; the world became a place in which he could not survive.

Moustafa and the Author make their way from dinner, and the Author informs his audience that, "In recent years, of course, such properties and holdings as the Grand Budapest had with very few exceptions become-- common property." The once-unique grande establishment became common, in essence, owned by the people. The Author in the 1960s sits, alone in the hotel lobby, writing in a notebook.

The film then jumps to the Author in the 1980s writing in the same notebook; the story carries forward into a new time and generation. In this narrative, the boy sits in the background quietly. His attempt to "kill" the Author failed; the boy seems to have peacefully given up this goal. This narrative toys-- quite literally-- with Barthes's notion of killing the author. In this layer, the Author is not killed.

In the final frame, the girl in the park closes her book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The story is complete. The Author's tomb is close by, showing that, though he couldn't be killed in his layer of the frame, he has been killed in hers. This presents some contradiction in possible interpretation (For example, does this mean that the author, ultimately, is dead, even though in the previous layer we saw the boy fail in his attempt to kill the author? Or, does the Author live on through his/her narratives?) but opens up the door for philosophical discussions on a film whose ending is almost as flexible as Gustave H's sexuality.

"I go to bed with all my friends."

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