Descriers of the End of Cinema take note–Wes Anderson lives! From 1996’s truly Texan Bottle Rocket through 2012’s magnificent Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has graced us with a cavalcade of conniving dreamers prone to nearly debilitating melancholy but buoyed by the communities of broken people both enthralled and frustrated by them. His films are pictures of filmmaking precision, utterly unique, and packed with proverbial treasures.
Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is yet another miracle of cinematic clockwork. This time his starry-eyed schemers are those connected in a variety of ways to the hotel of the film’s title. Principally, the film focuses on the exploits of the Grand Budapest’s concierge, Gustave H, and his newly hired lobby boy, Zero. The story also includes wealthy, wooed, wizened women, a pilfered, priceless painting depicting a pre-pubescent stripling propping up produce, and an SS-inspired war force rampaging the mountainous countryside. F. Murray Abraham smirks knowingly in this film, and Willem Dafoe brandishes brass knuckles. What more do you need to know?
You might also need to know that The Grand Budapest Hotel is built on a foundation of respectability. Gustav H and his protege go to any effort to treat their guests with the utmost reverence. They are polite to a fault and incomparably civil. At least, they are until pressed, and then they erupt in a flurry of unrefined profanity.
Anderson’s movie style is similarly staid, composed, and genteel. His shots are more constructed than composed, and the camera’s movements are choreographed as gracefully as a waiter maneuvering around a busy dining room. Then suddenly, all this propriety is interrupted by a moment of shocking violence, explicit sexuality, or profanity. It’s as if the eau de establishment is merely a hefty splash of cologne covering up a more plebeian odor.
Surprise is the essence of comedy, and the constant whip pans between aires of respectability and vulgarity have always been the essence of Anderson’s comedy, and it’s especially evident in The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Perhaps his comedic styling have never been better. It’s difficult to say, as I felt the same way after seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom for the first time.)
To what effect though? Are the moments of surprising vulgarity merely humorous, or do they serve a higher purpose?
The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s more profane elements are evidence of a way of living its protagonists are trying to leave behind. They aren’t pushing upward because they are ashamed of their past though but because they know something better is possible. And what’s better isn’t wealth (though it might or might not include wealth). What’s better is kindness.
Gustav H. and Zero choose politeness not as a return to something long gone but as a longing for what never was but could be. They are polite because they want people to be kind to one another. They view their moments of impropriety as ethical failures. They apologize for their lapsed manners. They do not celebrate them. Their world is always on the brink of total disaster. Ecclesiastical calamity lies around every narrative bend. Their politeness is a matter of life and death. The only thing holding their world together is their community’s shared commitment to be kind to one another.
And that’s just one of the wonderful parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie I recommend highly.
To close, I want to briefly mention two more of the film’s treasures, because I loved them so.
First, the deeper into the past we go, the clearer the focus. Present day is shot in 1.78:1 and features shallow focus (like what you could shoot with your smart phone), the 1970s is shot in 2.35:1 and has varying focus (the same as 1970s Cinemascope), and the 1940s is shot in 1.37:1 and features deep focus (Academy Ratio, common to films from that time).
To me, this accomplishes two things. First, it puts the audience in the respective eras in a way that only clothing styles and color palates would not. More importantly though, it suggests that only in memory does life have meaning. We’re too close to the story in the present to know what matters. We must live every moment as if it does, because in the future, we might find that it did.
Second, this line is included in the film: “It didn’t seem necessary. We shared a vocation.” I can’t say more without ruining part of the movie for you, but I find that idea very profound. What does it mean to share a vocation? What vocation ought we all to share? What might it mean for the world if we did?