In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson explores our standards and perceptions of perfection. One of the most interesting juxtapositions in the film is the perpetual contrast between characters and their environs. Anderson’s often symmetrical framing places characters in situations they can’t possibly live up to. The perfection of their surroundings accentuates their very human imperfections and ticks. Each frame is meticulous, orderly. The Grand Budapest in 1968, though in a state of drab decay, is orderly as well. It’s concierge, Monsieur Jean, is described as both lazy and quite accommodating. As the Hotel slowly decays, he, dressed in the same purple regalia as his predecessor, does the best he can to stay true to the standards of past perfection. He is introduced in the center of the screen, but he slouches. When a guest suddenly starts choking, all pretense and airs are dropped with a panicked, “Shit!” as he scrambles to his ailing guest. Through Anderson’s framing and direction, he is able to playfully illustrate the impossibility of attaining the material perfection that adorns his sets and characterizes his shots.
Still, we must contrast Jean’s characterization with Zero’s recollection of Gustave H. Zero’s story is painted with pinks and whites, miniature sets, all artificial and all conveying a sense of impeccable perfection. As viewers, we initially associate that perfection with the material perfection of the surroundings. We assume that Zero is truly recalling a more perfect time. However, as we are introduced to Gustave H, we see that is not the case. Much of the film’s humor and absurdity stems from Gustave’s vanity, his fickle nature, his vulgarity and the contrast between his many, many flaws and the perfection he demands from his surroundings. Where Jean (and several other characters in the film) tried and failed to attain the standards of properness imposed upon them, Gustave is characterized differently. For some reason, his pursuit of perfection and his own impropriety are depicted as, ironically, natural, as if he is the shape perfection takes. In tracking shots, the camera follows him and more often than not, he is framed in the center of the action, as if he is defining his surroundings. Indeed, as this story is a recollection of Zero’s, it is likely that Gustave is depicted this way, because Zero viewed him this way. While we see so many other characters trying and failing to achieve some arcane standard of perfection, in Gustave’s hotel, Zero assumes that Gustave has set the standard. And, thus, how could Gustave violate it?
The Grand Budapest is, for all intents and purposes, Gustave’s creation. It is a perfect container to reflect his aspiration for control. Throughout the film, boxes and box structures are used as containers for perfection – controlled environments, free of the blights in the outside world. These boxes frame characters and objects. Gustave is repeatedly framed in the red elevator of the hotel, seated as his employees stand. He is effectively in his element. In this small, controlled environment, he has found perfection and “civility” – where everything is proper and he is effectively served by his employees. As we learn later, Gustave has aspired to become the guest in his perfect hotel. Further, in the snow, after their prison escape, Gustave finds himself in a telephone booth, and is framed in the booth as well. While Zero waits outside, separated from Gustave by the phone booth’s walls, Gustave finds his control once more and regales Zero with the story of the Society of the Crossed Keys.
Only immediately after the prison break, when Gustave berates Zero, do the scenes colors turn dark, complemented by a dark blur around the frame. Here, there is no pretense and no perfection to hide the pain and frustration both Gustave and Zero are feeling. Here, neither are in control.
The important difference between Zero and Gustave is that Zero never aspired for perfection. Unlike any of the other characters, Zero is rarely a source of humor, because he is always authentic. He rarely aspires to any pretense he cannot achieve. While Zero’s story is materially perfect, we learn at the end, that the perfection of that time in Zero’s life came, not from control, but from the happiness of being with his mentor, Gustave, and his love, Agatha. In having this happiness and this peace, Zero finds a control and perfection he can attain. In Zero’s final scene, he enters the Hotel’s now yellow elevator, composed and collected, much in the same way Gustave once did, and bids the Young Writer farewell. Framed in a box, in his “home”, Zero’s happiness is his perfection.
However, since much of this analysis is based on Anderson’s mise-en-scene and his framing style, how much of the above analysis is truly intentional with regards to the Grand Budapest? The same framing and directing techniques are used to similar effect in Anderson’s other films, like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. These are all very different films. Is it simply that Anderson applies the same style with different intentions in each of his films, or is that style largely inconsequential to the film’s subject matter? Even in the Grand Budapest, though the different narratives from 1932 to the present have different sets and aspect ratios, the directing style is very similar, to the extent that maybe it does not have the intentionality I have assumed it has.