In a cinematic world where there is much darkness and grotesqueness, Wes Anderson’s films are intriguingly bright and beautiful, replete with snappy dialogue and lighthearted visual touches, engaging the viewer in a fun, often fairytale-like experience. Yet, despite the congenial face of Anderson’s film oeuvre, there is something unsettling about his films; something is not quite right.
Although—visually, at least—Anderson has a fantastic artistic sense, a consummate artist can produce a film that holds together not just visually, but as a whole, like a fabric woven carefully of the threads of vision, music, dialogue, plot, and character. Wes Anderson films are certainly unique, spawning parodies of his quirky style and mysterious sense of humor. But is his artistic vision truly complete and whole?
Happiness and meaning seem tied together, and in all of Anderson’s films, from Bottle Rocket to Grand Budapest Hotel, the characters are driven by a sense of purpose; they actively pursue something on their search to live a happier life, and seem to end with a sense that life is worth living. Yet the films leave the viewer a little baffled, if not queasy; it’s almost as if, despite being a cohesive visual whole, the bottom simply drops out of his films, because Anderson doesn’t quite know how to make sense of life.
Consider the conclusion of Bottle Rocket. Central character Dignan is jailed after his friends’ failed heist, yet rather than feeling morose or frustrated by his situation, he is content, even enthused, about life, “We did it though, didn’t we?” he asks triumphantly. His confidence affects his friend, who replies, “Yeah, we did it, alright.”
Fantastic Mr. Fox sets the same mood. The animal characters in the story have suffered much, lost their home, and nearly starved. In the end, they have tunneled into a grocery store, which promises temporary safety and food but not final answers to their problems. Yet, they celebrate and Mr. Fox offers a speech. “Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose . . . and even these apples look fake,” he says, as he holds up the grocery store fruit, “but at least they’ve got stars on them.”
Pry into the films’ optimism for a motive and their case starts to crumble. When the viewer asks Anderson’s characters to provide a reason for their hope, none is forthcoming. We can be okay, despite life’s ups and downs, they seem to say. Why? Well, we’re not sure. Just because we decide to. Because we sense there is something worthwhile about it.
It seems Wes Anderson attempts to forge meaning for his characters in a (sometimes hilariously) meaningless world. His cinematic technique makes their actions seem meaningful—but meaning what? The philosophy they live by ranges from murky to non-existent. With only a distant admiration for a vague spiritual force (a wolf in Fantastic Mr. Fox or feather rituals in The Darjeeling Limited), Anderson’s films offer no clear resolution of the major questions the films raise, such as what makes life meaningful? and why should I be happy? Anderson’s characters are caught in a spiral of searching that they can’t plausibly get out of, making the optimistic endings feel frustratingly false.
Describing Anderson’s films as “optimistic” may be misleading; his films do not ignore life’s darker side. The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, deals with suicide attempts, lies, jealousy, drug abuse, adultery—yet with an overall mood of un-seriousness and wry self-awareness, making it difficult to take Richie Tenenbaum’s wrist-slitting seriously. Maybe Anderson is, in the end, merely too flippant.
Visual excitement in Anderson’s films masks this flippancy and muddies his characters’ search for meaning. The intricate details and the bizarre quality of the dialogue distract the viewer from the nonchalance with which Anderson treats all subjects, both trivial and profound. Take the following conversation from The Darjeeling Limited, for example.
“Did you get maced too?” asks a main character, Jack, seeing the Indian girl he had an affair with growing teary-eyed as he leaves. “No, I’m crying,” she retorts. Then she asks, almost rhetorically, “What’s wrong with you?” Jack’s reply is comical: “Let me think about that. Tell you the next time I see you.” Her answer: “Sure, tell me then.” Jack: “Thanks for using me.” Indian girl: “You’re welcome.”
This exchange highlights the fact that The Darjeeling Limited is perhaps Anderson’s most explicit—and fruitless—wrestling with the meaning of life. Scrambling to make sense of life in the wake of their parents’ defective marriage, three brothers embark on a bizarre train ride across India trying to “bond” with each other.
Through their experiences, they replace their weirdly manipulative, backstabbing, and trustless brotherhood with some sort of camaraderie—and yet they haven’t really made sense of the shambles of their lives. One brother is a struggling writer trapped in an abusive relationship. The oldest is strangely controlling and feels a desperate responsibility to make life good for his younger brothers, even going so far as to order their food for them. The middle brother is terrified by his wife’s pregnancy and the notion of permanence in marriage, and develops kleptomania following the death of his father.
Ultimately, the three brothers don’t really come to grips with all of these problems. Instead, they merely let go of some emotional (and literal) baggage, and yet walk away oddly confident despite being constantly disappointed in life. Anderson doesn’t quite explain how or why.
This queasy resolution to the search for meaning seems to reveal an existentialist streak. Unsure of where meaning lies, Anderson’s characters ultimately just fabricate some sort of meaning for themselves.
In this, they are not unlike most modern men—whom in The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.” Deprived of hearts trained in knowing what is good, they have lost the crucial connection and mediator between their reason and their gut, and operate disjointedly with either one or the other. And though they cannot make sense of everything without the conviction of that interior natural and ethical compass, they simply must keep functioning somehow, resulting in an anarchy of questionable decisions.
Do these characters say something about their creator? The real problem, it may be, is that Anderson is himself a “man without a chest.” With a sense of wonder, he surveys all the hidden and mundane glory of the world alongside all the foul and the sad and the perverse—but, lacking a real heart trained in knowing what is good, he isn’t entirely sure which is which.
Yet somehow, he’s convinced that somewhere along the line, human life is both glorious and hilarious. So, his films wade wide-eyed and light-hearted through the bowels of human perversion, the tragedy of sudden death, the grossness of sin, and the mystery of human suffering, touching them all with a hand as gentle—and ultimately as purposeless—as a child’s at play.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!