Stuart Murdoch and Wes Anderson may as well be twins. The two auteurs likely have near identical record collections and they share a visual aesthetic wrapped up in stark, flat palettes. But more importantly, they both have fanatical cult followings who treat them as semi-religious figures, their every work a spiritual tome ready for revelation and devotion. And this year, they both released films exploring the role fate plays in the creative process and the nature of fan devotion.
Anderson has a long film career but Murdoch only just made his directorial debut this year, with the quasi-musical God Help the Girl. A French New Wave inspired take on the formation of a band suspiciously similar to Belle & Sebastian, God Help the Girl is a relatively faithful cinematic update of the iconography that defined the band’s aesthetic as well as the storybook mythology that grew around the band. The titular girl of the film is Eve (Emily Browning), a music obsessive who has been hospitalized for an eating disorder and longs for freedom, both from the hospital and her psyche. The movie starts with a basically unsuccessful escape attempt by Eve, but before long she has escaped for good and moves in with James (Olly Alexander), a bespectacled singer-songwriter who pushes her to explore her musical talent, albeit for selfish reasons.
Belle & Sebastian fans are no doubt connecting the dots between Eve and Isobel Campbell the instant James enters the picture, and those who have regarded Paul Whitelaw’s Belle & Sebastian bio Just a Modern Rock Story as a Bible will find plenty of symbolism and reference to dig into. But God Help the Girl isn’t just a modern rock story, if anything it’s a repentance of sorts for Murdoch, a way of confronting the deification that made him a twee icon and condemning the condemnation of the traitorous figure fans have painted Campbell as. Browning is irresistible as Eve and while some critics have scoffed at the way Eve’s personality shifts scene from scene, that fickleness is true to the nature of her psychological issues and serves a dual purpose as a sly commentary on the nature of fandom itself. It’s James not Eve who is the naïve figure, and his belief that he can subtly craft her into what he desires isn’t just poorly thought out, it’s a significant hole in the good guy armor he believes he has wrapped himself up in.
Much of James’ naivety comes from his unwavering belief in fate, particularly his view that he and Eve are destined to be together, a belief that is echoed by bandmate Cassie in a moment of meta-commentary as she proclaims that if they don’t get together, then everything she’s ever learned about romance from music and film and books is wrong. For James, art is as much luck as skill, and he has the unfortunate tendency to believe things will happen if they just make great music, while Eve rejects that notion and is devoted to making her own luck.
Murdoch’s personal view on fate isn’t exactly apparent, but in Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s view is even more complex. Structured as a film about the creation of a book, Budapest Hotel is full of Anderson’s trademark meticulousness and symbolism, mixing the director’s small detail oriented obsessiveness with a refreshingly new embrace of violent chaos for a result that seems to say that even when we think fate is on our side, there’s still plenty of ways luck will betray us. Where Moonrise Kingdom mixed surprising violence into a seemingly innocent story about coming of age, Budapest Hotel takes it further and merges Anderson’s standard aesthetic with a tone and style deeply indebted to war-set noir works like Touch of Evil.
Anderson’s previous films, Moonrise Kingdom included, have favored his Hal Ashby and French New Wave influences, but Touch of Evil stands out as Budapest Hotel’s closest ancestor, sharing its border and hotel hopping as well as its nastiness. Anderson still gets in incredible set pieces and breathless voiceovers (which are split between decades and narrators here) but neo-noir’s conflicted view on morality is arguably more important to the film than aesthetic whimsy. From the framing sequence’s take on fan devotion to Anderson’s own complicated views on author worship, the film also features a more heavily meta oriented commentary than is normal for the director, and the result is a fascinatingly schizophrenic film from an auteur known primarily for his faithful devotion to style.
Where Budapest Hotel and God Help the Girl most align themselves, however, is in their commentary on the unfairness of the world. Budapest Hotel’s ostensible protagonist Zero is first presented to us as a legendarily rich tycoon (played by F. Murray Abraham), but his younger self (Tony Revolori) is a curious mix of awkward and confident, making him a spiritual brother to God Help the Girl’s James. Both young men have dealt with misfortune and are used to not getting what they want, but are nonetheless devoted to triumphing over the odds that have stacked against them. Likewise, both are tragically devoted to women who won’t be with them for long, if at all. But where James is often to blame for his own bad luck, the universe– and by extent Anderson himself– seems hellbent on keeping Zero from ever being truly satisfied or alive.
In Zero’s case, his fixations on iconography and locations, which come together in the form of the Budapest Hotel itself, are simply his way of dealing with the tragedies that have defined his life; he worships the past not because he fetishizes it, but because he can’t let it go. James may be less successful and ultimately far more impotent, but only because he lacks the awareness of fate’s true nature that Zero has. It helps that Zero has a vain but ultimately good hearted mentor in Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge at the Budapest who takes Zero in as a lobby boy. Zero and Gustave notably bond over their shared love for the Budapest and its history, jointly building up the hotel as an institution with a deep mythology. That history is what first leads Jude Law’s author character to assume that Zero has held onto the hotel out of respect for the tradition of Gustave, but the film is quick to deflate that notion.
That moment, which comes towards the film’s end, is perhaps the clearest sign that Anderson is both aware of and concerned by the tradition his fans have tied him to. It’s worth noting that Budapest Hotel is one of the rare Anderson works that is inspired by another creator, in this case Stefan Zweig, whose Wikipedia page handily points out was criticized for being too “superficial,” a dirty word that has been thrown Anderson’s way since Rushmore first made waves. That’s conveniently also a term that is frequently levied against Murdoch, and which has been particularly prominent in criticisms of God Help the Girl. Both works willfully work in superficiality, but both do so by design– Budapest Hotel is of course about a lavish, ornate hotel at the top of a mountain in a cultured European country, and God Help the Girl is a musical, arguably one of the most superficial of genres. But both works are also brave departures for their creators, even if the transformation they each make is more subtle than other metamorphoses. In the end, the two works also share the misfortune of existing in a precarious position, where they’re not clear enough in their departure from the styles associated with either auteur to seduce naysayers, and they’re markedly different enough in tone and composition to potentially alienate the auteurs’ respective cults. Yet isn’t that fitting for two creators who have succeeded because of their insistence on following their singular styles to their logical conclusions, fate be damned?
God Help the Girl was seen at SXSW, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is in theatres now.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Stickers and makes fun songs about horrible subjects with a Chinese opera vocalist as Pontypool.