Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Triumph of the Dandy

"Harking back to a time when people really believed that splendour and refinement were states of the soul, not mere acts of display" - Mick LaSalle, The Spectator

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film that presents a dandy in immaculate proportions. The cologne aficionado extraordinaire and lover of mature women Monsieur Gustave H. is played by Ralph Fiennes. Gustav H. is a study in Libertine Dandyism. Exactly how it is so I would like to explain here.

Firstly, the film The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work of fantasy and escapism, but it has two clear  underlying concepts that are steel-hard in a fluffy glove of old-world class, etiquette and delicate pastries. Firstly is the idea of tolerance. The film is laced with tension points that seem to show the cruel injustice of intolerance. Violence is never far behind when someone judges someone else as being 'wrong' in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Secondly, the film features a Europe that is imagined by people who do not live here (i.e. Americans). In the film Europe is a place where disfigured but beautiful young women make pastries by hand in ancient buildings, it is snowing all the time, fluctuating war is constant between almost indistinguishable ideologies (all based on cruelty), the aristocracy are remote, aloof and dazzling and eccentricity is widespread. Its a bit like if Baron von Münchhausen took over Disneyland during a particularly long and bitter winter in the Bavarian Alps and made it an adults only theme park. This is the cynical version of what is a charming and due to the underlying message of tolerance, brilliant film. But I am most interested in the return in these barren times of the dandy.

M. Gustav H is the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel and his word is law in the establishment. 

Concierge: 1640s, from French concierge "caretaker, doorkeeper, porter" (12c.), probably from Vulgar Latin *conservius, from Latin conservus "fellow slave," from com- "with" (see com-) + servius "slave" (see serve (v.)). 

M. Gustav H likes the ladies, old/er rich blonde ladies. Gustav H also enjoys tailored clothes, perfumes, food, drink and the society of his peers. He lives alone in modest circumstances within the hotel, eating his meals (often simple affairs of bread and soup, alone. But society is important for Gustav H. Apart from his women, workers and friends he belongs to a secret society, The Society of Crossed Keys, a network across Europe made up of the concierges of the best hotels. The members of The Society of Crossed Keys assist each other regarding their concierge work and get help regarding any difficulties they may find themselves in. Gustav H. is loyal to his values and colleagues (preserving an order of class and occupation). He twice risks his life for "my lobby boy" who is an immigrant is menaced by fascist thugs. Gustav H. also states he "goes to bed with all my friends" and is of the view that "there still are faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity." This civilization is the code of the Dandy.

A gentleman is cultured to the point of refinement, but a dandy is cultured to the point of decadence. To alleviate his boredom, he will often grow overstated, perverse, toying with vulgarity. The dandy is responsible to no one other than himself. Being consistently well-mannered is far too bourgeois for the dandy: he holds to the more aristocratic character, in that he often feels himself above such workaday concerns as manners and accountability. In order to avoid being thought banal or trite, he becomes impossible to predict: tender and kind one moment, cold and cruel the next. He has transcended any dowdy middle-class notions of what 'refinement' is. There are good reasons why the dandy was reviled: he was a self-absorbed, egotistical, useless prick. Nineteenth century books are rife with this dandy vs. gentleman distinction, even having adjoining pictures of each species for clarification. (The Dandy as Libertine)
The inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel is the work and reputation of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, letter writer, biographer, socialite, commentator and essayist. George Prochnik, the author of the forthcoming book, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World” reports that early on, when the writer resided in his first bachelor-pad in Vienna, he enjoyed entertaining guests. Zweig served them “liquors sprinkled with gold leaf in rooms that were buried in books and painted a deep red that one friend described as the color of the blood of 4,000 beheaded Saxons. Rich, handsome, a dreamy sensualist who chain-smoked Virginia cigars and once had an essay he penned about Handel printed entirely on silk, Stefan Zweig was the quintessential dandy cosmopolite.” (From Greg Archer)

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s production notes contain an essay, entitled “The Cosmopolitan Apocalypse of Stefan Zweig,” by George Prochnik, which may help explain—more than the film itself—why Anderson is attracted to Zweig. It argues: “Today, when governmental surveillance and the official documentation of every aspect of existence are once again multiplying so aggressively that many people feel their core individuality to be threatened, Stefan Zweig’s impassioned pursuit of personal freedom seems more relevant than ever. His anguished existence of exile has lessons for us all about the values of civilization that we should be fighting to save in our own time” (From Joanne Laurier).

These values are emphasized and exemplified in the dandy. The dandy personified in contemporary times is Sebastian Horsley, recently deceased. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Horsley;

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