THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: What Do Fake Personas Cover-Up?

Why does someone create an illusion of who they are? Wes Anderson, a master of psychological ironies, tells us quite a lot about that subject in The Grand Budapest Hotel. At the center of the film is M. Gustave trying to live as someone he is not. All around him are juxtapositions of barbarism with humanity, slapstick with straight-up serious considerations of loneliness, greed, and the sometimes-desperate need for love. Is M. Gustave immune to these feelings? Or is his carefully worn illusory identity an attempt to cover them up?

We all have a story. Sometimes that story is deeply hidden and requires patient listening, gentle questions, or just the right ear to hear it. That’s my job as a psychoanalyst. That’s the job of a writer. That’s what I’ll do now to unearth the psychological reasons for the illusion M. Gustave lives under.

Zero Moustafa gives us two hints about M. Gustave, but even Zero doesn’t know much about what exists beneath the surface: “his world vanished long before he entered it, but he certainly maintained the pretense with remarkable grace.” It’s a hint that’s almost impossible to understand and the mystery only continues: “He never told me who his family was.” Both leave questions, not answers. Did he have a family?  Did he lose them?  Was he ashamed? Was there never anyone to really love him at all?

Matters of love are also at the center of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Zero’s never-ending love for Agatha and his loss of her.  The old ladies, like Madame D, lonely for love. M. Gustave’s seemingly dutiful ministrations. Even though M. Gustave looks like he wants nothing back, isn’t he the hungriest of all?

As concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave portrays himself as the most genteel of sorts as well as impeccably giving. Yet, this is a thin and brittle illusion – with glimmers, definitely, of civilization and humanity. But underneath we find “the barbaric slaughterhouse” of crude emotions that not infrequently storm right though his almost too polite veneer.

M. Gustave is human. He swears, he rages, he feels personally assaulted, and even apologies for his lack of kindness. He can be fatherly, erudite. But, he’s also perverse out of his own rather desperate needs; needs that are cloaked in the most intricate part of his pretense: that he has no needs at all. That what he does for “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, and needy” female hotel guests is for them – and not primarily for him.

M. Gustave might wear the mask of selfless giving. But he preys on the loneliness of old women because he’s terribly lonely for love and can’t admit it. He’s just as afraid as those he talks about in one of his sermons: “People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved …” He allows himself to see loneliness only in others. What does he do with his?

He stays in the background, anticipates needs before the old ladies know they have them. He makes them feel exactly what he wants to feel – desired and wanted and beautiful and loved. He makes these old ladies love him back, while never appearing to ask for anything. Yet, hidden beneath the genteel illusion of M. Gustave – he wants for quite a lot.

What happens, then, when M. Gustave can’t admit to his needs and only finds them in someone else? When his hungers and deprivations (very real and understandable ones, I’m sure, if we knew the real story of his early life) are denied?

They are perverted, turned to depravity and greed as well as opportunism. Because how else, when his needs are pushed aside, hated, and seen only in other people can they ever find a way to be satisfied?  In the end M. Gustave’s cover-up manages to make him rich. But he never has much of a life – certainly not a long one or one with any real love.

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