Wes Anderson movies are possibly the closest thing to an event movie for the … I was going to say something like "indie nerd cinephile set," but the truth is Anderson’s films are beloved by all kinds of audiences—those who love tentpoles, cineastes, sci-fi aficionados, etc. His visual vocabulary is so idiosyncratic, so singular and distinct, it has practically become a brand or genre unto itself and it can be appreciated by anyone who simply loves movies. One of the most influential voices from the past two decades of American cinema, it’s funny to think that Anderson was endorsed by Martin Scorsese way back in the day when the “Mean Streets” director co-signed onto his then little-cared-for debut “Bottle Rocket” several years before Anderson would blow up into a cultural phenomenon (that wouldn’t be until around “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”).
And as with any beloved figures, polarizing responses can creep up. In the middle part of Anderson’s career (circa 'The Life Aquatic' and after), some critics began to complain about the familiar stylized elements of his films being a crutch and formula, diorama-like to the point of aestheticizing the emotions of the story (to be fair, some prescribed elements—the slow motion endings, that Futura font, the expected Kinks or Rolling Stone song—were starting to feel a little mechanical at a certain point). The chief complaint was Anderson was repeating himself over and over again. At the end of the day though, while Anderson has made some little efforts to shrug off some the more comfortable elements of his films—going handheld, changing up aspect ratios, ditching his trademark fonts—he is himself, the filmmaker he wants to be and he has fully embraced that. A Wes Anderson film will always be a Wes Anderson film for better or worse (considering just how original and influential he’s been, we’d say for the better).
"[Repeating myself] is not something I think about. I really think about just the world of this movie, and what this one is going to be," Anderson told us in an interview at Cannes last year. "My natural handwriting is neat and it is like my personality. Somewhere along the way I made this choice: I can force myself to not be what I feel I naturally am or I can just go with it and develop it.” Clearly Anderson has chose the latter.
His latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” just released its trailer yesterday. And most of us around The Playlist wholeheartedly love it (or at least this writer at any rate). It seems that Anderson is fully embracing comedy with this picture; this writer sees it as Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedies as lead by a 1950s Peter Sellers type. Playlist writer Jessica Kiang all made us laugh with this awesome observation: “The lovechild of Barton Fink and Agatha Christie as raised by Groucho Marx. Rendered in cake icing.” The arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is an event—one that often cuts through the noise of anonymous studio films geared for commerce—so we thought, much like we did last year for “Moonrise Kingdom” (a piece you guys seemed to enjoy), that we’d do a similar trailer deconstruction piece and look at some of the themes, motifs and similarities in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Anderson’s previous movies. Beware some super nerdy speculative stuff in here that some could view as spoiler-y.
The Aspect Ratios & The Movie’s Time Periods
I’m the last person to fetishize aspect ratios, but Wes Anderson films are known for their distinctive widescreen look which is due to the way Anderson shoots his films, assisted by longtime DP Robert Yeomen who has worked on all of his films aside from “Fantastic Mr. Fox." Anderson usually shoots in an anamorphic 35mm that is 2.39:1 (or close to that figure, sometimes 2.35.1). The filmmaker changed things up a bit and shot in Super 16mm and the 1.85 aspect ratio for his first period piece “Moonrise Kingdom” (set in the 1960s) and for his second period piece “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson is doing the same, switching things up.
The director has alluded to the fact that ‘Budapest Hotel’ is set in different time periods and the varying aspect ratios in the trailer, and this Anderson interview with Matt Zoller Seitz (author of the recent and comprehensive book “The Wes Anderson Collection”) bear that out. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was shot in 1.33, 1.85, and 2.35. “The movie jumps through three time periods; the different aspect ratios tell viewers where they are in the timeline,” Anderson told Seitz (thanks to Larry Wright for pointing this all out). So what are those time periods? Well, the movie appears to mostly take place in the early-to-mid 1930s—the synopsis says the movie takes place in Europe “between the wars,” (meaning between WWI and WWII), “all against the back-drop of a suddenly and dramatically changing continent” (this earlier synopsis is even more revealing of this point).
Plus the time periods, at least two of them have been confirmed by Jude Law (who notes he has a “tiny, tiny” role). “It’s mostly set in the '30s, and my segment’s set in the '60s," he told The Playlist in an interview earlier this year. Our educated guess (based on the evidence in the trailer), is that the aspect ratios work in a kind of reverse chronological order—the more black in the frame the older the time period, the less black, the more recent (which is basically similar to how aspect ratios progressed in film history anyhow).
Time Period #1: The 1930s (1.33.1)
Most of the trailer is set in what appear to be the movie’s aforementioned main time period. And so fittingly, Anderson shoots in the old school “square”-like aspect ratio used in that era (1.33:1 or also known as 4x3 or the Academy ratio). There are two other different time periods in the film and as you can tell by these screen caps, they look different and are in 1.85.1, and 2.35.1 (notice that they look similar, but 1.85.1 has less top and bottom “black bars” on it).
Time Period #2: The 1960s (2.35:1)
The trailer is narrated by Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and he is clearly the older version of the lobby boy in the movie named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). In his voiceover he speaks of his time at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in his past as a young man. So clearly there’s one period in his youth (the 1930s), and then one when he is older. Going by Abraham’s age (he was born in 1939 and is currently 73 years old) this would probably land Mr. Moustafa more in modern times, but check the aspect ratios (not to mention the 1960s-esque turtleneck that the character sports). It is the same as Jude Law’s aspect ratio which is 2.35:1, meaning this likely the 1960s as well. And while that doesn’t really match with Murray’s age, a) it’s a movie, b) Wes Anderson’s time periods have always been fluid (see the fairy tale New York in “The Royal Tenenbaums” which is set in “modern times,” but feels more like the 1970s).
Time Period #3: Perhaps 20-25 Years After The 1960s? (1.85.1)
The last time period? It’s unclear, but there key clues given away on the poster which tells us whom every actor plays. The characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson could be the same person when you A/B the poster and trailer. Jude Law is listed as the “young writer” and Wilkinson as “the author” and their two aspect ratios—1.85 and 2.35—are similar enough to suggest a time and age gap not much different from the two actors. Perhaps Wilkinson is an author working on a book about the “Child with Apple” painting (seemingly the MacGuffin of the movie that ties all the characters together) and perhaps during the 1960s he was interviewing the now older Zero Moustafa as he’s really the only living person to have been around during its theft. Just a wild guess, obviously, but it’s one theory to consider. Time is relative in Anderson’s films so this speculative “20-something year gap” (the age gap between Law and Wilkinson in real life) could place this final period closer to “modern day” (again, that’s whatever Wes wants it to mean).