Last weekend, Wes Anderson’s new movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, broke the record for highest-grossing, live-action, limited opening of all time, beating out The Master and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom before that (granted, GBH only opened on four screens in NYC and LA). Which is to say, Anderson is well on his way out of the big city art houses and into Middle America.
Starring Ralph Fiennes and a cast of Anderson regulars—Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton—the film tells the story of a concierge at a 1930s hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka who enlists a bellboy to prove his innocence after being framed for a murder.
In anticipation of the film’s opening in Portland on Friday, we called up Matt Zoller Seitz, the TV critic for New York magazine and editor for rogerebert.com, who recently passed through Powell’s promoting his new book, The Wes Anderson Collection. Seitz has known Anderson since the director made his first film, Bottle Rocket, and has come to learn that there're two Andersons. “Wes’s got a public persona—kind of well dressed man about town, who’s hyper-educated and a world traveler and all that stuff,” says Seitz. “But he’s still a Texas boy at heart. There’s something very 'aww, shucks' about his demeanor. I think he’s created an identity in the way that Hitchcock did.”
We asked Seitz what we need to know going into the theater for The Grand Budapest Hotel:
1. For one thing, it’s the first out and out farce that Wes Has done.
He’s had farciful elements before, but that mode hasn’t dominated from start to finish like it has here. Not even in Life Aquatic, which had more of a pot smoker vibe, and it would wander off on tangents and not be in any hurry to get wherever it was going. This one is different. It’s an extremely lean, purposeful film that starts out fast and gets faster as it goes along.
2. This is the first time where he’s sort of dealt with time—showing you the different layers of history.
It’s set in three different time periods: present day, 1968, and the ‘30s and ‘40s. He switches back between three different aspect ratios so you know where you are.
3. It’s a story about storytelling
A lot of his films have framing devices where you feel like it’s a story being told to you by someone. In Rushmore you have the things that are divided by the curtains opening and closing in Max’s plays. The Royal Tenenbaums was represented as an adaptation of a novel that in fact never existed in our world. Life Aquatic begins and ends with scenes from a documentary with Steve Zissou, who is the protagonist of the film.
Grand Budapest Hotel begins with this young woman carrying a book, The Grand Budapest Hotel, to a statue of the man who wrote the book. Then we cut to the author of the book as an old man telling a story to what appears to be a documentary crew about how he came to write the story. And then we jump back to him as a young man in 1968 when he was first told the story that would later become the novel. This story is told by this guy Zero who starts out as a concierge at a hotel in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Wes has always been aware of the artifice of telling a story, but this is really the first time I think he’s sunk his roots into why we need stories and what function that they serve. It’s an attempt to come to terms with a very messy set of experiences, and it’s an attempt to give meaning to something that really is probably meaningless in the long term.
4. It’s a fictional world
As he has said in interviews, he’s basically collapsed World War I and World War II into a single war. That’s par for the course with Wes: he deals with completely made up geography most of the time.
5. It’s a very deep film
And you don’t think about any of these things while you’re being told the story, you’re just sitting back going “ahh that’s fun, ahh that’s interesting.” It’s only once you’ve thought about all the component parts that you realize something deeper is going on. This is always the case with Wes’s movies.