For some reason past viewings of Gosford Park made it difficult to say much about it. Theories abound as to why, but undoubtedly two reign supreme: the slow mental digestion of this viewer, and a wedding – truly a becoming one flesh – of form and content on the part of the filmmaker(s). At this stage in his career, it must be admitted that Robert Altman had primary and probably sole creative control over his projects. So once again, bonjour auteur theory. Despite lame efforts to ignore you, you have again reared your pretty head.
If a viewer struggles to grasp the basic idea overarching and undergirding Gosford Park, look only at the division of actors in the end credits: “Above stairs,” “Visitors,” and “Below stairs.” The class separation within this film, which may seem only as strong as it is in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, is more fluid, traversed, and transgressed. By virtue of these boundary-crossings, the class differences are highlighted all the more. So overt are the examples of these instances that some characters, usually those below the stairs, discuss them openly. A rule prohibits servants to respond to their own names when downstairs. Instead, they are identified by the names of their masters and mistresses. The servants wonder at what it must be like to be wealthy. When one of them turns out to have been posing and is in fact a wealthy actor, he is shunned and spurned by the servants thereafter. The head servants proclaims the highest dignity to be the one who “knows what they (the elite) want before they themselves do.”
How this factors into the murder-mystery aspect of the film is more provocative. Whereas Agatha Christie’s novel-films use the class distinction as a tool to suspend the mystery and postpone the answer to the whodunit? question, Altman here switches things, using the murder-mystery to bring us back to his higher concern. That the murder, it turns out, was carried out twice (sort of), makes the crime as ambiguous as the class distinction seems to be upon close inspection. From a distance, we see clearly. Up close, it’s quite clear. But from that arm’s length distance at which most of life is lived, things are quite difficult to make out. The murder has its roots in an early transgression of the boundary: the master sleeps with his servant. The child is given up, the servant remains faithful but grows older, the master finds new and younger playthings, and the child and mother grow bitter as they gain perspective.
Fitting that this film was made in the new century, as it represents a quintessentially postmodern twist on a classic genre of film and literature. The twist is only slight, but it is indisputably present. In the end, two people think themselves the murderer, and only one is right, but both are also right. A familial relation is uncovered between them, but seems to be known by only one. The justification for the murder is rather strong, and no one is “punished” for it in the traditional sense; at least, no one is found out by the authorities. The police enter but have no powers over the world of the upper-class. (This is evident quite literally in the inspector’s inability ever to finish pronouncing his own name, despite numerous attempts.) The spat-upon token American guests (above the stairs) commit the transgression as Americans are best at doing: grabbing and running. The Hollywood producer (perfectly cast: Bob Balaban performs here flawlessly and is a producer of Gosford Park) snags the shamed servant and drives away with her to offer her an acting career. As the crony of the murdered man, she is rewarded for her faux pas while her master remains quite punished. Renoir’s film was something like a moral tale, a social critique. Altman’s is a social critique but a rather amoral tale, more akin to the new world in which it was made than to Renoir’s. Altman’s floating camera remains detached from all the goings-on but constantly interested. The viewer feels like an invisible spy wandering around freely, neither judging the lives it watches nor celebrating them. If the film comes down on anyone, it comes down on everyone. The sins are of omission and commission, ranging from innocent naivete to backstabbing treachery. The biggest problem that the film itself points to, however, isn’t of individuals but of the society that so trains them.