Depth of Field: The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Shape-Shifting Aspect Ratio

Photo from fastcocreate.net
Photo from fastcocreate.net

This past weekend, my sister and I had our parents over for dinner. After dinner, we decided to watch a movie. Our parents had never seen “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. After fifteen minutes of searching various Video-On-Demand services to find out which one they wouldn’t be able to watch on their own, it turned out they had neither, and we settled on “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

Okay, so, a warning: over the course of this blog, I am going to come across as an absolute Wes Anderson fanatic. And I am. Sort of. But lately, my sister and I have been going backwards through Mr. Anderson’s filmography because we hadn’t seen any of his films, but always wanted to. They are amazing and you should watch them (if you want, I don’t care). So the fact that his films are so fresh in my mind is going to make this fact of my character even more exaggerated. I swear I like other directors.

Anyway! We settled on Grand Budapest, and I had already seen it, so with the story already known to me, I was able to perceive all the little gems I missed on my first viewing. And man. Are there gems.

Wes Anderson’s attention to detail becomes apparent from the first frames of any of his films. He has this unique style of cinematography where he centers everything, or creates mirrored symmetry across the center of the frame. It’s very pleasing, and it screams, “Hey! This thing was labored over! Pay attention!” The man rules his mise en scene with an iron fist. It really gets across my favorite thing about watching Wes Anderson films: they feel complete. Like neat little packages tied up perfectly with a bow on top. The story, the imagery, the characters, the score, the world, everything feels complete. It feels like a whole. The part of your brain that consumes and appreciates art feels full after watching a Wes Anderson film.

The main subject of this post is a great example of Wes Anderson’s taking complete artistic control of every aspect of his films. And that example is Grand Budapest’s aspect ratio. Or, I should say, aspect ratios. Because there are several.

So, to understand the reasons behind what I’m about to explain, I need to set up some of the basic premise of the movie. The story in this film is actually two stories. Really, it’s a story within a story…with another, very thin story capping the whole thing on either end. Much story. Many level. Like “Inception”. Except not at all.

The film begins with a young girl holding a book and standing at the memorial of an author. The author of the book she’s holding. That book? The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then we move a level down, to the elderly author’s study as he dictates the opening of the book directly to the camera. Then we move another level down to the time that the author is describing, when his younger self (played by Jude Law) visited the Grand Budapest Hotel. Because it’s a place. Here, he meets Mr. Zero Moustafa, the owner of the hotel, who agrees to tell Jude Law his story, bringing us to the last level, when Mr. Moustafa was a young boy in the 1930s.

And here, as you may have already guessed, is the reason for the use of different aspect ratios: to differentiate these time periods. It’s an incredible little detail, and I completely forgot about it from my first viewing, and I love it. I got so excited that I actually made a Vine about it. It’s brilliant because he doesn’t have to do this, and by doing it he is not only constraining himself to a thinner aspect ratio, but he also has to plan for shooting different aspect ratios for each time period! But it’s a fantastic way to make it clear to the viewer that the time period has changed. Sure, there is text at the bottom of the screen letting you know what year it is, but because the film jumps back and forth a few times, the shifting aspect ratio keeps you in the know without having to explain the time change each time it happens!

It’s a simple, elegant, visual solution to what can quickly become a problem for some films: portraying several different time periods. But this film takes that problem and makes it a beautiful artistic asset. Just another layer of detail on this already incredibly beautiful work of art. Just another reason to love Wes Anderson.

— Mike Egan, Film Blogger

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2 thoughts on “Depth of Field: The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Shape-Shifting Aspect Ratio

  1. jonesthlewisuedu October 8, 2014 / 11:34 pm

    Mike, I thought the directing was very fine and the storyline just delightful. It is hard to find films these days that have multilayers and intrigue as well as keep the audience’s attention.

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