emilyrugburn’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of the few physical criterions I’ve grabbed this year.
I’ve really looped around the whole course with this film.
Originally watching it, over Chinese takeout and from the confines of Beth’s guest bedroom in sleepy Rohnert Park, in the first month of my four-month journey scattering my dad’s ashes out west in autumn 2014...I remember loving it and immediately considering it my new favorite Wes film. This was the tail-end of my early 2010s as a fledgling Luddite, ever-dissatisfied with the world and generation I was born into and longing to have been around for the recent decades of the past. Not yet realizing the grotesque privilege and erasure of others’ suffering that are requisite for being of that mindset.
Then, in the immediate wake of the Nazi murder of Heather Heyer, in the season of “very fine people on both sides” and the bipartisan whine for ~civility~, I remember this film re-entered my mind and led me in to finally getting honest about the problems of the Wes film universe. I considered the notion of Gustave H. being a “last bastion of the civilized” as an idea to reject, even to consciously rebel against. Cuz fuck civility, right?
And then finally re-watching it now, with a more vivid grasp of how fascism gallops onto the scene in real time - still trying to be mindful and honest that as horrific as it is, we ain’t seen nothing yet - I think I’ve arrived at an understanding with the film and with Wes’ foray into actively political storytelling.
Yeah, about as far as he can go is the white savior idea, and yeah, that’s not far enough. And yeah, still the problems with female characters (although one of the Criterion video essays does make the good point that Agatha is a shell of a character by Zero’s choice - a narrator too pained by the memory of her to go deep into her life and identity). And yeah, all of you who love Jeff Goldblum are gonna be in for a world of hurt when the MeToo shoe drops eventually...trust me, it’s comin.
But really, what ~civility~ does Gustave H. hold onto, in the end? His last act is the smashing of a cocktail glass on a fascist boot-licker’s face. He puts his body on the line for his friends (his only family).
That’s an act neither as grotesquely “ah, those were the days” nor as “very fine people on both sides” as I once had convinced myself.
It’s just the only option there is, in the face of fascism. And maybe the “world [which] had faded long before he ever entered it” wasn’t actually some boho ex-pat novelist white privilege paradise century of recent yore, but rather a world so long since faded that it had maybe never existed in the first place.
Maybe Gustave H.’s faded world was just a romantic idea of utopia - the same one we all have pangs for when the violence confronts us.
And it’s never really existed. And we don’t know if it will. And some of us will probably die like Gustave H. did.
So, I suppose...two puffs of the perfume for now?