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Utilizing the keen wit and boundless creativity all filmmakers should possess, Mr. Anderson provides fantastical tales, but never neglects to include accessible examples of human longing…

existentialThrough the unique directorial vision of Wes Anderson, audiences have seen truly unforgettable, delightfully odd stories spring to life. His genius may be indicated first by his settings—fictitious locales, muted color palettes featuring pastel shades, rooms explored with tracking shots, unique scene-blocking, and symmetrical framing. Yet it is Mr. Anderson’s characters that stand out most prominently—an achievement in itself, given their varying backdrops. These characters are also diverse, but many take part in a theme commonly utilized by Mr. Anderson: existential doubt or dissatisfaction as a driving force. In many of Mr. Anderson’s films, there is no shortage of soul-searching; one might say that this state of mind is the inspiration for Team Zissou’s latest project, the vehicle that carries the Whitman brothers through India, the impetus for the flight of two preteens through the forests of New Penzance, and the motive behind the rigorous training of a new lobby boy in an old hotel.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) features two characters who brave a dramatic ocean voyage in their search for contentment. The protagonist, oceanographer Steve Zissou, has recently suffered the loss of his close friend and colleague in an attack by the mythical jaguar shark. He tells his wife Eleanor, “I’m right on the edge. I don’t know what comes next,” a statement indicative of his apathetic outlook. His plan to track down the shark offers new subject matter for a documentary as well as an opportunity for revenge, but he remains unenthusiastic until he meets a man named Ned Plimpton. The revelation that Ned may be Steve’s son surprises neither of them, but it marks the beginning of a different kind of journey. Successfully locating the jaguar shark is the stated objective of Team Zissou’s voyage—with the additional obstacles of an unexpected heist, the possibility of negative press, and an attack by pirates—but Steve and Ned find a far greater purpose in clumsily navigating their relationship as father and son.

Although Steve’s inhibitions prevented him from reaching out to Ned in the past, he consistently tries to act the part after the introduction is made. For instance, he suggests that Ned change his last name to Zissou, and promptly offers him a place on the crew of the Belafonte; these gestures indicate Steve’s paternal inclinations. Likewise, Ned’s choices are often influenced by the aim of winning Steve’s approval. He takes leave of his job and offers his entire inheritance to fund Team Zissou’s expedition, demonstrating his investment in their relationship. Fortunately, the confined quarters of the Belafonte create an environment that allows for further personal improvement, once Ned chooses to stand up for himself and express his frustration with Steve’s pride and insensitivity. Since Ned exhibits steady patience throughout many of Steve’s missteps, they are able to resolve their conflicts, and Steve’s disposition consequently improves. Their biological connection is unverified, but Steve finds himself changed by the bond forged between him and Ned. At the end of the film, the viewer witnesses Ned’s demise and Steve’s return to a state of grief—yet this event, while heartbreaking, holds great significance in Steve’s search for purpose. Although he was unable to be present for most of Ned’s life, he unwittingly gave Ned his greatest wish in his final days.

Mr. Anderson’s audiences found a clear example of existential wanderlust in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), which follows three brothers—Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman—as they embark on a “spiritual journey” aboard a train in India. Prior to their departure, they have not been in touch since their father’s funeral; they still carry his luggage and use his personal items, denoting a shared inability to accept their loss. Within the first several minutes, Francis Whitman states that the primary objective of the trip is for them to “become brothers again,” which initially seems an unlikely conclusion. Each brother is dealing with significant life changes; Francis has recently survived a motorcycle crash, Peter fears his impending transition into fatherhood, and Jack pines after a dysfunctional relationship. Additionally, they must handle the obstacle of the trying sibling dynamics that have become entrenched over the years. The brothers find themselves briefly caught up in petty disagreements, but they are willing to persevere, with the goal of mending their relationship and overcoming their own demons.

During their travels, distractions emerge—including Jack’s brief affair with a stewardess, the escape of a poisonous snake, and a lost train—and for a time, the brothers remain stubbornly immersed in their own concerns. They reach the low point in their trip when they are expelled from the train and receive the news that their mother—a flighty woman living in a Himalayan convent—does not wish for them to visit. In their moment of shared disappointment, they wisely choose to reconvene, apologize, and discuss their mother’s selfish choices. “She’s been disappearing all our lives,” Francis acknowledges, and it becomes clear that the brothers must come to grips not only with their father’s death, but also with their mother’s selfishness. Just as they resolve to abandon the trip and part ways, they experience a harrowing event that reminds them of their recent loss, indirectly rekindling their plan; at the last minute, they choose to call on their mother. The final test of their resilience, both together and apart, comes when she abandons them yet again. Having learned to trust one another, the brothers accept that she will invariably continue to withhold support from them. Furthermore, they make renewed efforts to resolve their personal problems; Peter begins to look forward to his responsibilities as a husband and father, and Jack frees himself from the influence of his ex-girlfriend. As they hurry to catch their next train, they are also able to—literally and metaphorically—leave behind their father’s baggage and carry on happily without it, a final indication of the positive change they have undergone. Despite the trials the Whitman brothers confront in their time together, they gain fresh perspective and fraternal connection. By the end of the film, they have finally become, in Jack’s words, “friends in real life”—“not as brothers, but as people.”

In the bildungsroman Moonrise Kingdom (2012), two young people on the island of New Penzance make the drastic decision to run away together, leaving a concerned family, policeman, social worker, and scoutmaster in their wake. Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop have in common their understated affection for one another, which creates a quirky, tender love story in the midst of their exploits. Their reasons for leaving their respective communities are wildly different, but they are both motivated by loneliness and a feeling of displacement. On their trek to a deserted cove and beyond, they begin to understand themselves and each other with greater clarity, paving the way for a more well-adjusted future.

By the time they choose to run away, Suzy and Sam have been pen pals for a year, and have already experienced a previously unknown sense of kinship. Suzy’s home is depicted as quiet, a household in which all the occupants are remote and uncommunicative; in her abundant spare time, she reads books about faraway worlds and gazes through her binoculars as an escape from her internal angst. An orphan, Sam has experienced frequent relocation in the foster care system; even his fellow Khaki Scouts at Camp Ivanhoe have never attempted to befriend him, citing rumors that he is “emotionally disturbed.” Similarly, Suzy reveals that her parents view her as difficult, showing Sam a booklet titled “Coping with the Very Troubled Child.” Suzy chooses to leave with Sam as a desperate means of obtaining lasting companionship with someone who does not view her as damaged; on the other hand, Sam seeks both a companion and a home. With Sam leading the way, Suzy expresses her struggles through healthy communication. “I’m on your side,” Sam assures her, and his actions speak likewise. In showing kindness and support to Suzy, he is able to demonstrate his positive qualities and form a more ideal sense of self. His relationship with Suzy becomes equivalent to a family of sorts; both Sam and Suzy are willing to look beyond the other’s behavioral issues, and their mutual respect brings about a change in them. Sam explains it simply: “When we first met each other, something happened to us.” The twelve-year-old lovebirds find their place in the world through the haven of their relationship, which allows them to form positive associations with others and fundamentally improve their circumstances. Through the continuance of their relationship, which began out of a shared yearning for the proper balance of autonomy and solidarity, Sam and Suzy will continue to thrive, both as individuals and as a couple.

Wes Anderson’s most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), is a frame tale in which the owner of the titular hotel, Zero Moustafa, recounts his long-ago adventures to The Author. In taking up their respective roles as storyteller and listener, Moustafa and The Author figuratively travel to a bygone era; the story itself takes place in the Republic of Zubrowka, when the Grand Budapest Hotel was known as “a widely celebrated establishment.” In the days of Zero Moustafa’s early adulthood, he works under the careful supervision of the concierge Monsieur Gustave. During the escapades that follow, these two characters form new futures for themselves—Gustave gains a protégé, which results in a valuable friendship, and Zero discovers an employer, a woman, and a job that provide him with a sense of security in a rapidly changing world.

Throughout Moustafa’s retelling, Monsieur Gustave’s identity revolves around his position and influence as concierge; yet he soon comes to appreciate and care for the new lobby boy. Zero’s desire to belong to “an institution” gains him a job at the hotel, a momentous event that he sums up in a few meaningful words: “And so, my life began.” Zero quickly proves his dependability, which permits Gustave to trust him with the complexities of safeguarding a priceless painting. When he is framed for murder, Gustave’s ego is wounded and his liberty endangered, but Zero’s loyalty never wavers. It would seem that Zero has no choice but to help Gustave win his freedom; yet it is Zero’s conscientious decisions that determine not only Gustave’s fate, but his own. Shortly after he is hired, Zero finds love with a brilliant young pastry chef named Agatha, and together they are able to aid Gustave in his time of need. The importance of his relationship with Agatha is emphasized when the elderly Moustafa recalls, “We were each completely on our own in the world.” Rather than remaining isolated, they make a sincere commitment to each other, despite their lack of money and the imminent threat of war. The two of them act as co-conspirators with Gustave, carrying out a triumphant prison break, evading a ruthless hit man, and restoring Gustave’s reputation—and in the process, Gustave benefits from the sense of fellowship he has found. In treating Zero as his “dear friend” and trusting him with increasingly weighty responsibilities, Gustave enriches his own existence. Decades later, Zero retains the Grand Budapest—despite the financial burden and lack of profit in the hotel—because of the bittersweet memories of his former profession, his mentor, and his wife.

Among all Wes Anderson’s memorable films, these four in particular are remarkable for their shared use of existential dissatisfaction as a catalyst for change. Utilizing the keen wit and boundless creativity all filmmakers should possess, Mr. Anderson provides the audience with fantastical tales, but he never neglects to include accessible examples of human longing. Whether they are coming to terms with paternity, brotherhood, young love, or their place in the world, his characters never sit idly by; with unbreakable resolution, they seek out every possible means of improving their lives. Therefore, Wes Anderson’s productions have come to be known not solely for their many distinctive characteristics, but more notably for their artistically-rendered glimpses of the motivations shared by his characters.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Beautifully written.

    When I think about Anderson’s movies I always see this longing, this yearning for love, and also for something that seems irretrievably lost. Maybe his heroes won’t find exactly “it” in the end (it is trully gone forever and the journey leads them to understanding), however, they will always find something new. Maybe better, maybe different, it is not known yet, but definitely much more mature than in the beginning.

  2. Thank you for this very good introduction to Wes Anderson. I am intrigued by your review and insights and will look for the opportunity to see all four films. Always enthusiastic to expand my horizons, I appreciate very much the variety of The Imaginative Conservative site and will definitely recommend it to family and friends.

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