I watched my first Wes Anderson film in a mostly empty country cinema with a clearly baffled friend. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was one of my first teenage movie experiences that didn’t involve warring monsters or American college hijinks. I felt like I had dived into the weird end of a beautifully designed pool.
Weeks earlier, I had come across the poster and it immediately caught my attention. I saw it sandwiched between standard Hollywood fare—a fun-size retro submarine navigating a coral reef—and a cast of wonderstruck (and oddly luminous) characters who looked at me, suspiciously. I looked back, drawn in by a potent sense of longing for a past and place that I hadn’t experienced. This particular brand of nostalgia was usually reserved for the old family photo albums of friends—the types with those round-edged photos in which everyone’s smoking while soaked in baby oil to tan—but, amidst my beige country town’s shopping arcade, I was having a similarly romantic reaction to this movie poster.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
For the uninitiated, watching a Wes Anderson film is much like assembling a house. At first the separate parts seem rigid and meaningless. But when the various materials come together and patterns start to emerge, the house becomes somewhat a work of art. The blueprints emerge more complex than initially thought.
“His films study the ways people search for adventure and meaning in landscapes that echo the familiar but are also imbued with a sense of magic. ”
In a way, every film can be described as a house under construction, but Anderson seems to marry the physical and emotional energies in a uniquely affecting way. His films study the ways people search for adventure and meaning in landscapes that echo the familiar but are also imbued with a sense of magic. Imagine a building designed by Robert Altman and furnished by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and you might begin to understand Anderson’s style of moviemaking.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), his third film, uses an especially beautiful New York brownstone as a physical setting for the Tenenbaum family’s unfurling lives. It is also a manifestation of their shared history in a city suspended in some gold-hued era that’s both very 1970s (the costumes, the music) and also self-consciously 2000s (again—the costumes, the music).
The audience is introduced to each of the prodigal children in the opening minutes, before revisiting them (all in grown-up variations of their costumes) many years later. Each has had a level of professional success, but has become undone by some kind of emotional combustion that has forced them back into childhood spaces: an amber-lit indoor tent, an executive-style bedroom suite, a room stuffed with sports awards. It’s a sprawling house, full of surprising corners and closets, set in a pocket of New York that’s entirely fictional but instantly recognisable. When the Gypsy Cab Co. taxi slides down streets in a battered yellow jacket, there’s no question Anderson’s off-kilter creations are uncanny versions of the everyday.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The ways family, friends and estranged spouses interact with a home space carries over to The Life Aquatic (2004), but in the form of an old naval vessel named The Belafonte—the scientific and spiritual hub of oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew. Every compartment of the ship is revealed, firstly, like a dollhouse at sea—stacks of interlocking rooms, each serving practical purposes. Though as the film rolls on, emotional associations are formed with every nook of the ship: the poop deck is where relationships are tested; a glass observation pod under the ship is where Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) gazes out to sea in a moment of contemplation. The fingerprints of a daydreaming Wes Anderson are all over the design of The Belafonte, but the emotional lives of these rooms come from lived experience. The mythology of oceanographer and documentarian Jacques Cousteau also shapes the way characters interact with the idea of an ocean adventure, and how they physically appear (in those iconic red beanies).
Of course, the most important element of Steve Zissou’s home is that it can travel. In The Life Aquatic the crew is on a wild goose chase—well, “jaguar shark” chase in this instance—that leaves them in (literally) uncharted waters, somewhere between the Canary Islands and the Italian Riviera. After a series of escalating events (which involve piracy, deck fires, and a stolen espresso machine) Steve and the gang find themselves on a rescue mission to the abandoned Ping islands—cyclone-ravaged resorts that have the sad grandeur of an abandoned Colonial outpost. The scenario is ridiculous, but the islands feel authentically haunted, as if The Belafonte has entered another version of the Bermuda Triangle.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
In Richard Brody’s 2009 critique for The New Yorker, he wrote about the filmmaker’s similarity to the great mid-century artist-adventurers Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks: “Anderson shares their self-discipline; their coolness under pressure; their appreciation of the exacting work ethic behind the beauty of objects; and their physical joy in the presence of danger.” Anderson, through The Life Aquatic, does appear to celebrate the spirit of travellers, and those who are physically searching for something, even if that something is a red herring. The Hemingway-esque Zissou had the Jaguar Shark, whereas the Fitzgerald-esque brothers in The Darjeeling Limited are searching for their mother, who has disappeared to India.
In Darjeeling three upper middle class brothers (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) meet in India to escape their various personal predicaments, track down mum (Anjelica Huston, in her third Anderson role), and engage in light self-discovery along the way. They board an elaborately decorated train—a dream version of the subcontinent, shrouded with incense smoke—and travel to the heart of the country. Anderson’s camera reveals train compartments in a similarly cross-sectional way to the rooms of Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic; a sense of choreographed chaos with stories unfolding adjacent to one another.
“They board an elaborately decorated train—a dream version of the subcontinent, shrouded with incense smoke—and travel to the heart of the country.”
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Although the brothers want to discover themselves quickly, they’re visitors in a country far too expansive and complex to make way for their neuroses: they have to make time for the heat, people and sense of ceremony they encounter. The moments of wonderment and then sobriety, seem to have sprung from the pages of a soft-edged travel journal.
From the juvenile delinquents in his first films Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) to the thirty-something brothers in Darjeeling Limited, scrappy young(ish) men finding themselves through misadventure is the default plot for Anderson. The young man who arguably serves that trope best is Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the protagonist from Moonrise Kingdom (2012). He is a fiery orphan looking to escape his regimented Boy Scout life with his crush—the depressed daydreamer Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward)—across the plains, streams and woodlands of a remote New England island in the September of 1965.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Suzy Bishop is one of Anderson’s more deeply developed female characters, who frames the way we see Sam. She reads constantly and describes moralistic stories inside her books which underline Sam’s quest for escape, but also for a happy ending. When describing Suzie and Sam’s worldviews, Anderson said: “When you’re eleven or twelve years old, you can get so swept up in a book that you start to believe that the fantasy is reality. I think when you have a giant crush when you’re in fifth grade, it becomes your whole world. It’s like being underwater; everything is different.” The central crush in Moonrise Kingdom gives a golden, bookish texture to that world; the natural awkwardness of the performances from Hayward and Gilman, and their interactions with the earth and treasured objects, feel true to the analogue world they exist in. From the ultra-cool Françoise Hardy vinyl to Suzy’s chic pink dress, this is a 1960s that has all the signposts of reality, but the imagined contours, roads and footpaths of a fabled island called New Penzance.
Sweeping romance resurfaces in one of Anderson’s more recent films, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which plucks the story off the road again and places it into the interior world of an aging luxury hotel. In a sense, the setting is an elaborate version of Tenenbaums house, only this time the bricks are replaced with a paint the colour of cake frosting, and New York is swapped for the mountains of Eastern Europe.
“These worlds are constructed models that aim to capture the essence of places you’ve encountered before: an autumnal woodland, an overcrowded train, the foyer of an old hotel.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Zero (Tony Revolori) is a refugee who has found himself newly employed at the hotel between the World Wars, under the tutelage of the debonair concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Things quickly go awry and Zero finds himself simultaneously on a plot to save Gustave, while also in love with Agatha (Saorise Ronan). The blossoming romance between Zero and Agatha in Grand Budapest is reminiscent of Suzie and Sam, but the true central relationship is that of Monsieur Gustave and his treasured hotel. He loves the great sanatorium: “Keep it spotless, glorify it,” he tells the hotel’s staff. It’s a space that feels ancient while maintaining a vibrant charm in a conflict-riddled world that echoes our own.
Although Anderson and his talented production designers reference real locations, they aren’t aiming to recreate every detail. These worlds are constructed models that aim to capture the essence of places you’ve encountered before: an autumnal woodland, an overcrowded train, the foyer of an old hotel. His films recognise the joyous sense of exploration, whether it’s on ‘New Penzance’ or cruising through the Mediterranean. The spirit of adventure and discovery I first saw in that poster of The Life Aquatic seems to be both a reflection of Anderson’s filmography, and by extension, his real life appreciation of the different places we can visit in our heads and in our reality.