What Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel Can Teach Us About Poetry
Let me start by saying that this is not a movie review, and I’m not a movie reviewer. I also have to declare my bias here as a dedicated fan of Wes Anderson’s whole oeuvre.
But for what it’s worth, Grand Budapest Hotel is a particularly great film. And while I’m being upfront, be aware that while this post doesn’t contain plot spoilers per se, fans of Wes Anderson will know that sometimes the plots of his films take a back seat to their cinematic execution – the how is often as important, or more important than the what. It’s how Anderson uses poetry in this film that tells us something about how poetry functions, and so some of you might feel spoilered if you read on. Incidentally, all of the poems in the film – which are admittedly parodic, though often quite arresting – were scripted by Anderson himself.
Early in the film, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) – concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel – catalogues his meager possessions: “a set of ivory-backed hair brushes and my library of romantic poetry”. In fact, the library of romantic poetry is so dear to him that he seems to have committed the whole lot to memory, and takes great pleasure indulging in its recital despite it often falling on deaf ears and rolled eyes. This part of the film is filled with all the decadence and complacency of any first act – but drama is only around the corner. The function of poetry in these early scenes is fairly simple. Some small event happens and M. Gustave is reminded of a verse, which sets him off wistfully into recital – the way certain grandparents might launch into The Man from Snowy River if you don’t tread lightly. The words don’t seem to have much living meaning for M. Gustave, except that he seems to remember a time when they did, and revisits them for nostalgia’s sake.
But soon – and without giving anything away – M. Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), are thrust (as you might expect) into a plot. And here M. Gustave’s poetry begins to serve a different function. As the characters progress through a series of escalating plot arcs, certain lines from his favourite poems surface. In brief moments of introspective calm, M. Gustave takes stock of his dire situation, is reminded of a verse, and begins again to recite out loud. However, the lines are now delivered with more intensity. The relationship between the on-screen drama and the words is palpable. Some cataclysmic event, an injustice or an act of violence, brings these words to mind, and he recites them not with a sense of nostalgia, but in total awe. This is the film’s first lesson in poetics: poems are things that make order out of chaos. They are a way of making sense. A poem read in slippers is not the same as when recited on the permafrost of some desolate wasteland. A poem read in the bath is not the same as one recalled in the face of injustice, brutality or war.
These moments of epiphany don’t last long. M. Gustave is doomed never to finish a poem because every time he pauses to reflect on the events that have led him to some brief moment of respite, some other catastrophe catches up with the pair, and the frenzied pace of the adventure resumes. The very act of pausing to make room for poetry allows the plot to catch up with its protagonists, and thrusts them back into the fray. This device is used to such great effect that the introduction of poetry into a scene takes on a role usually fulfilled by foreboding music – the audience learns that poetry spells trouble. This is the second lesson: poems are words so precisely chosen that they can provoke the hand of fate. Poems dare events to happen. In giving shape to past experience, they also disrupt the flow of future events, or at least the way they are perceived and the way we react to this perception. They are epochal in the truest sense of the word, and also transitory. And this provides us also with the third and final lesson: that poems are as relevant today as they ever were. Reflecting on M. Gustave, Zero as an old man describes him as being from a time that was over before he was born – the imputation being that Gustave’s world of poems and words and ivory-backed hair brushes was anachronistic even in the first half of the twentieth century. But these words shouldn’t be taken at face value, because here we are, talking about Wes Anderson’s use of poetry as a diegetic film device. The function of poetry is always changing, always finding new ways to filter experience. I don’t think anyone has used it quite like this before.