This film is ostensibly a comedy but is also a serious discourse on the way the filmmaker creates the frames and perspectives that shape the narrative and content of the film.
Director Wes Anderson steps his audience back through five frames as he begins his narrative: a young girl visits the statue of an author with a book in her hand, on the back of her book is a picture of the author who then appears on screen to give a commentary on writing. The author then morphs into an earlier version of himself and has dinner with a man who tells him the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
The hotel itself is a vast and gorgeous pink doll’s house in an Alpine diorama in an imaginary European country in the 1930s.
Presiding over the affairs of this decadent and indulgent temple of luxury is concierge Monsieur Gustave H who maintains the deliciously ordered ambience of the hotel.
The film is a nostalgic paean that chronicles the destruction of hotel and the world it represents, a world where style and appearance are all that matters. When Monsieur Gustave views the body of a dear friend and now dead customer Madam D, he says, “you’re looking so well darling. You really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they’ve put on new down at the morgue, but, I want some.” It doesn’t matter if you’re dead, the only thing that matters is how you look.
Life in the hotel under Monsieur Gustave H is not only ordered, it is also surprisingly symmetrical. The symmetrical architecture of the exterior is mirrored by the symmetry of the lobby with its sweeping staircase.
Throughout the film the wonderfully symmetrical sets of the Grand Budapest frame the characters and the action of the film.
Many of the characters are presented as if posing for a formal portrait, a reflection of the world in which appearance is everything and attention to detail is paramount.
In many other scenes the characters appear posed, again as if for a photograph, before whirling off into the next bout of frenetic and madcap action.
The symmetry and framing pervades the whole film. Almost every scene is set piece of carefully crafted composition. Even the children’s birthday party is beautifully symmetrical.
In many ways, it is extremely formal but the genius of Wes Anderson is that within this formality is a chaotic, anarchic and often ridiculous Punch and Judy show that careers across the screen.
The symmetry provides, not only the visual impact of the film, but also frames the action both dramatic and comic, such as the scene where Madam D’s will is read and punches exchanged.
Anderson places his characters in these formal settings much as a child would place figures in a diorama. Many of the scenes have the characters looking out from small confined spaces, (the interior of the lift, a small bedroom, a motorcar window or the interior of the ski lift) to some other scene in the film.
As Anderson places his characters in the settings of the Grand Budapest, the audience sees them in the context of this gorgeous and orderly anachronism. In the two scenes in the train, Zero and Gustave look out on the war that is beginning to swirl around the Grand Budapest.
In the first encounter with the troops, the officer in charge remembers Gustave from his childhood visits to the Grand Budapest and orders his soldiers out of the carriage. The world of the Grand Budapest has prevailed. But in the second encounter, no such niceties prevail and things go badly for everybody.
Not only does the audience see the characters framed by the world of the Grand Budapest, the characters are often filmed looking out from the Grand Budapest at the world outside. The view from these formal and gorgeous settings has always been a rosy one but now the characters are looking out on a world where totalitarian forces are overrunning the country and a group of thugs are murdering their way towards the family inheritance. But throughout all of this, life is viewed from the Grand Budapest with the urbane distain of Monsieur Gustave H. How seriously you take all this depends on your point of view and Monsieur Gustave H certainly doesn’t take it terribly seriously.
Yet, by the end of the film, the Grand Budapest and the view of the world it represented is a sad shadow of itself. All but one of the major characters have been cut down by the events that the film portrays. It’s a body count that rivals Hamlet, but our sense of loss is not for the characters, it is for the world that the Grand Budapest represented. The horrific events of the end of the film do not distract from the sense of nostalgia for the departed world the Grand Budapest.