Wes Anderson’s driest jokes aren’t laughed at in the cinema. They’re hidden in the pieces of text –– newspapers, death certificates, or ticket stubs – that flash past too quickly to be recognised on the screen. In 2014, he constructs jokes to be extracted as single frames and circulated as visual gags around the internet. The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite being set in the 1980s, 60s, and 30s, is his most contemporary movie.
The film makes light of Wes Anderson’s penchant for letters, with a layered narrative of stories-within-stories. It opens with a woman reading a memoir in the 80s (though the outfits could be 2014 Camperdown). Within that book, the author recounts his inspiration on meeting a mysterious hotelier named Zero (F. Murray Abraham) in the 60s. And within that, Zero (Tony Revolori) recalls his time as a Lobby Boy in the 1930s.
The 80s is filmed in modern Hollywood’s 1.85:1 widescreen, the 60s in 2.35:1 ultra-wide, and the 30s in the square-ish 1.37:1. The majority of the film is thus framed within a box, almost self-parodying Anderson’s square compositions. The film comments as much on the logic of cinema as it does on Anderson’s own aesthetic. Never has the frame of the screen felt so inhibiting. His characters suffer from a kind of narrative myopia that prevents them from seeing any danger beyond their frame. Everything takes place inside the box.
And what an exquisite box indeed. Anderson’s precise, right-angled framing and vibrant colour palettes combine within the square to create some truly stunning compositions. Characters dress not only to compliment the colour of the walls but to reveal their allegiances. Our protagonists wear purple, while the rotating band of cronies is draped primarily in black. Again, this is a film that might be appreciated frame-by-frame – each still resembles a painting.
Anderson suggests that his film is only incidentally related to the politics and strife of the 30s and 40s through a fantastic bait-and-switch, where Zero, on receiving the morning papers, sprints back to give warning to his boss. “Ah, war has begun,” I thought, leaning back on the plush leather chair of 2U Modern History. We get a close-up on the headlines (“Tanks near the border”), but our focus – and indeed the film’s -– is drawn away by close-up to a slight headline at the bottom of the frame. It tells us that a former guest of the Hotel Grand Budapest has died, propelling us away from war and into Anderson’s own parallel narrative. The SS, too, are replaced by the black-clad army of the ‘ZZ’. They’re reactionaries all the same, but humorously inept. However, ignoring these red herrings, this is Anderson’s most overtly political film, typified in a scene where Gustave both embodies and subverts the stereotype of the odorous conservative railing against the immigration of refugees.
I remain undecided as to whether the film has sacrificed something in embracing self-awareness. It is Anderson’s funniest film, though perhaps his desire for laughs denies The Grand Budapest Hotel the sincerity of, say, Rushmore. Regardless, you should see it in cinemas. Don’t be fooled by the boxing-in: this film is bigger than your MacBook.