Wes Anderson returned to the big screen in April with the release of Isle of Dogs, another fine film from one of the most distinctive auteurs in modern cinema. Anderson’s style is unmistakable: his frames are symmetrical, his palette is filled with vibrant colours, and his sets are painstakingly crafted down to the tiniest details.
His stories are madcap capers, but they are presented with a striking emotional detachment, matched by the impassive movement of the camera and the monotone speech of his characters. Anderson’s stylistic virtuosity means that it’s easy to regard his films as shallow and superficial, but his unique style disguises a surprising emotional depth. Anderson’s worlds, seemingly so joyful and beautiful, are actually deeply lonely places. Almost all of his characters are repressed or incapable of connecting with the people around them.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot locks herself in her bathroom and refuses to talk to anyone due to a failing marriage. The same movie sees Richie exile himself to the other side of the world, and Chas proves himself unable to come to terms with the loss of his wife. In Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy and Sam are misfits without any friends, Suzy’s parents sleep apart in a loveless marriage, and Scout Master Ward leaves his thoughts in an audio diary since he has nobody to talk to about them. In Grand Budapest Hotel, even the seemingly happy and sociable Mr. Gustave has to eat his meals alone, in a bare room every night, while Zero has lost his entire family to war. This is where Anderson’s detached style truly comes into its own. Often criticised as draining all emotion from his movies, he actually does the exact opposite, highlighting and reflecting the detachment of his characters. The long, silent, static shots of Gustave eating alone or Margot locked away in her bathtub capture their loneliness perfectly.
Despite his overly complicated plots, Anderson’s main interest is in how his characters manage to find a connection in a detached and lonely world. We may rejoice when Mr. Gustave and Zero finally prove their innocence and gain their fortune, but the emotional height of the film only comes when they are chatting with Agatha in a train car, completely at ease in a place where they truly belong. Similarly, the conflict with Social Services in Moonrise Kingdom is the centerpiece of the plot. However, the story’s narrative arc is only reached when Sam and Suzy are relaxing in Suzy’s house at the end, free from all the troubles that everyone else brings. But Anderson can never leave it at that – his endings are rarely unequivocally happy. In The Royal Tenenbaums, the narrator nonchalantly tells us that ‘Royal died of a heart attack at the age of 68’ while Chas and Royal are still laughing together on screen, following their reconciliation. In exactly the same way, the narrator of The Grand Budapest Hotel informs us that ‘in the end, they shot him’ just after the scene in which Mr. Gustave is shown happily talking to Agatha and Zero in a train car. We are then told, briefly and bluntly, that Agatha died of disease a few years later. In all of his films, Anderson is quick to remind us that all good things must come to an end. At the very beginning of The Grand Budapest Hotel, he shows us a glimpse of the future – a future in which the hotel is ruined, Zero is a lonely old man, Agatha and Mr. Gustave are probably dead. Even the setting is a reminder of how quickly things can change; we are well aware that the grand old Europe which Anderson celebrates will soon be destroyed by fascism and communism.
The ending of Moonrise Kingdom is just as bittersweet. We know Suzy and Sam will manage to live happily together for a while, but Anderson constantly reminds us that they too will grow up and become the adults they so despise. The symbol of their youth, their Moonrise Kingdom, is washed away into the past by a storm. Sam and Suzy are left with no more than memories, which Sam crystallizes in the form of a painting.
Anderson celebrates the joy and beauty that shared humanity can bring in a lonely world. But he is quick to remind us that every happy moment is half-gone before it has begun, doomed to last an instant before disappearing into the distant past. Wes Anderson is, in other words, nostalgic for the present.