Where Do Queer Characters Like ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’s’ Gustave Fit Into Wes Anderson’s Sexless Universe?


Spoiler alert: this post discusses major plot points of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Hollywood directors, like brutally stereotyped high school students, tend to fall into two camps: sluts and prudes. The sluts, like Lars von Trier, revel in sex, while the prudes, like Stephen Spielberg, blush and avert their eyes. They prefer to deal with anything — monsters, children, CGI — besides the disorder of adult relationships.

Spielberg acknowledges that he has a hard time depicting romantic love. In an interview about his adaptation of The Color Purple, he calls himself “shy,” saying, “perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between [lesbian lovers] Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss.”

Critics do not often compare Spielberg, one of America’s most successful mainstream filmmakers, with Wes Anderson, the indie darling, but in this respect, the two men are peas in a pod. Anderson is famous for fawning over his symmetrical landscapes the way other directors dote on their female stars; if he is turned on by anything, it seems to be dioramas. The people who fall in love in Anderson’s universes are either actual children, like the awkward tweens of Moonrise Kingdom, or metaphorical ones, like the emotionally stunted Herman Blume of Rushmore and Richie Tenenbaum of The Royal Tenenbaums. And all hearts break in the end.

Moonrise Kingdom is as close to a love story as Anderson has ever told, and it reveals his limitations. As Luke Buckmaster at Cinetology put it, “After Sam fondles Suzy’s chest, Suzy dryly notes that her breasts have some growing to do. The same can be said about Wes Anderson, a talented filmmaker (particularly aesthetically) whose stories find themselves ensconced in childish vacuousness.”

That childishness might explain why Anderson does not seem invested in the sex lives of his characters, except inasmuch as they cause the kind of pain that allows him to strategically employ pop music and pastels. “Few filmmakers have made being cuckolded seem both adorable and tragic” the way he does, Ryan Reft points out in his scholarly article “The Sexuality of ‘Whimsy’: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson.” If you are a boy in an Anderson movie, you can expect to end up somewhere between disappointed and devastated. If you are a man, especially if you are Bill Murray, you can expect to be cheated on.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, though in many ways an embodiment of all of the auteur’s most recognizable tropes and tics, represents an interesting digression in terms of sex. Ralph Fiennes, as Monsieur Gustave, a concierge who sleeps with his hotel’s older female guests, is as carnal as he is fastidious, a more refined Max Bialystock. He has no sex life with other men, and yet he is the closest Wes Anderson has come to a queer character.

Reft’s article sums up Anderson’s universe as one in which, usually quite literally, Boy Meets Girl:

Anderson’s movies remain firmly entrenched in heterosexuality. All romantic ideas revolve around rather established rituals of courtship. His male leads and their female counterparts display numerous odd quirks but they reside in the most traditional of romantic settings. No intimation of homosexuality can be located in any of Anderson’s films.

In the comments section, Reft takes into account Margot Tenenbaum’s youthful lesbian fling and Alistair Hennessey of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou referring to himself as “part-gay,” but maintains that “Anderson’s not really taking that sort of sexuality seriously or exploring it so much as throwing it out there randomly via characters like Hennessey and Margot.” Hennessey and Margot may be memorable presences, but they are both members of sprawling ensemble casts, and this aspect of their identities is never explored beyond an initial mention.

In Budapest, by contrast, Gustave is spotlit as the main character, and his sexuality is the driving force of the story: once his widowed lover Madame D. dies and leaves him a priceless work of art, the film takes off. Madame D.’s aggrieved son Dmitri calls Gustave a “faggot” and a “fruit” and, at the same time, accuses Gustave of sleeping with his mother. Gustave denies neither charge (“I go to bed with all my friends”) but does point out the inconsistency of having to answer to both. In response, Dmitri punches him in the nose.

Many reviews use Dmitri’s logic, if not his language: they refer to Gustave as “a gay gigolo who makes love to elderly, invariably blonde women.” What are they judging by? The fact that he says “darling,” takes care of his fingernails, wears perfume? He may appear foppish, but the only liaisons we see him have are with women. Some reviews are more precise on this point, referring to him as “Gustave, who may be gay” or saying only “everyone assumes he’s gay, but he’s not.” But what did Anderson intend? What does alternative sexuality even mean in a world as uncomfortable with real adult romance as Wes Anderson’s?

Anderson’s films often explore the strong, touching bond that can form between an older man and a younger one. In Budapest, that relationship binds Gustave and Zero, his lobby boy, a young orphan refugee from an unnamed, presumably Middle Eastern country. If Gustave were gay or, like Hennessy, “part-gay,” some tension might develop between the two of them. Though they share close quarters on various trains, a sled, and a horse, none ever does. When the lobby boy falls for the bakery girl, Agatha, Gustave reacts warmly, to the degree that Zero warns Gustave not to flirt with her. Even when Gustave goes to a men’s prison, we never see him get his “Oz” on. Gustave’s sexuality remains a mystery, one that Anderson seems uninterested in exploring. All the audience can be sure of is that Gustave loves is his hotel — his refuge, his home. Even his devotion to Zero seems to be an extension of professional loyalty: when Gustave is ready to die for his young friend, it is as a concierge protecting his lobby boy.

John Swansburg at Slate speaks for many critics when he calls Gustave a surrogate for the film’s auteur:

the concierge of the Grand Budapest and the film’s flawed hero, is clearly a figure for the director himself. Both men create luxurious worlds, attend to them with an obsessive attention to detail, and coax excellence out of a large, occasionally unruly cast of characters.

Like Gustave, Wes Anderson is a dandy who favors bowties and scarves and cultivates his image with care. As far as we know, he dates women (though not exclusively blondes). But, like Gustave, his passions seem tied to and expressed through place, his intricate sets — through which he can channel his creative impulses and his nostalgia for the fantasy of a more ordered past — playing the same role for him as Gustave’s hotel.

A happy relationship between two adults of any combination of gender may someday appear in an Anderson film. But for now, it seems, in a Wes Anderson world, home is literally where the heart is.