The wit of Wes Anderson

The distinctive visual aesthetic of film director Wes Anderson easily lends itself to parody, but deeper qualities can be found at the heart of his work.

Still from The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Still from The Grand Budapest Hotel. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

If you spent any time on TikTok this year, sooner or later, you would have been exposed to the #WesAndersonchallenge. This consisted of people attempting to depict their average day in as deadpan and stylised a fashion as possible, in homage to the American filmmaker Wes Anderson’s distinctive style; the vast majority of videos were soundtracked by Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty, harpsichord-led theme to Anderson’s 2021 film The French Dispatch.

Taken individually, these short films are somewhere between charming and irksome. Taken as an entity, they become entirely unbearable, and proof that Anderson’s inimitable visual style cannot simply be pastiched into ubiquity.

As the director releases his eleventh feature film, Asteroid City, he might be forgiven for beginning to feel weary of the attentions of his admirers. ‘I’m very good at protecting myself from seeing all that stuff,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘If somebody sends me something like that I’ll immediately erase it and say, “Please, sorry, do not send me things of people doing me.” Because I do not want to look at it, thinking, “Is that what I do? Is that what I mean?”’

‘Doing’ Anderson might at first appear to be the preserve of the over-enthusiastic and those with excess time on their hands, but his admirers’ own takes on his inimitable visual style is a homage of sorts, backhanded though it might be. The Instagram account accidentallywesanderson, a crowd-sourced assembly of pictures its curators have been assiduously putting together for several years, has nearly 2 million followers, all of whom thrill to its slickly presented and colourful imagery. It is impossible to think of any other filmmaker whose visual aesthetic — rather than the films themselves — has had such a disproportionate influence on culture as a whole. Of his eleven films, Anderson has only had one bona fide hit; far from coincidentally, his greatest work: the Stefan Zweig-influenced tragicomedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring a career-best performance from Ralph Fiennes as a punctilious hotel manager who finds himself embroiled in art forgery as fascism begins to overwhelm Europe.

Asteroid City, meanwhile, has made around $30 million worldwide; not an unimpressive amount for a fifties-set comedy-drama about love, loss and extra-terrestrials, but a great deal away from making its backers a profit, given its $25 million budget. His previous film, The French Dispatch, eventually earned $46 million worldwide against the same production cost. It is unlikely, once advertising costs were taken into account, that it would have come out in the black, especially given the notoriously tricksy nature of Hollywood accounting.

Yet nobody involved with Anderson’s brand of filmmaking does it for the money. He works with a group of actors that includes his regular stars Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston, along with the likes of Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman. A recent addition to this retinue, Bryan Cranston, recently gave an insight into Anderson’s filmmaking, which sounds both idyllic and miles away from the adrenaline-heavy set-ups of most contemporary filmmakers: ‘You just let go of … preconceived ideas and the way you approach other films, and you just fall back and get into the flow of that odd sensibility that he has … and be part of the company… There is no hierarchy in a Wes Anderson movie. There’s no … “I’m number one on the call sheet. I’m number two, you’re number seven.” There are no dressing rooms, there are no trailers. We live together, we eat together, we recreate together.’

Every actor is paid the same, whether they’re the lead or a one-day cameo. This is unlikely to make many talent agents happy, but it’s undeniably the case that Anderson enjoys a degree of personal loyalty from his cast that most directors can only dream of. When making his third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, with the undeniably difficult Gene Hackman in the lead, the actor, unconvinced by his inexperienced director, swore at him, calling him a ‘c**t’ and told him to ‘pull up your pants and act like a man’. In return, Murray came on set on days he wasn’t working to act as the filmmaker’s protector, about which Anderson later said ‘you were just there to show solidarity and I was very touched by that’. Yet the film speaks for itself. Hackman, who retired a couple of years later, was able to give one last great performance as the jauntily amoral patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, re-entering his reluctant family’s lives. The film made $71 million on a budget of $21 million.

Since then, Anderson has had to weather various storms. He has been accused of cultural appropriation and ‘white saviour’ behaviour for The Darjeeling Limited, which depicts privileged Americans abroad in India. His 2004 big-budget aquatic adventure The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou lost money and was met with distaste by critics, who accused him of rehashing the same ideas and tropes. Certainly, this has been an abiding difficulty for the director, whose distinctive mise-en-scène can often tip over into cliché. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two of his most successful films, Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs, are both animated, allowing the filmmaker all the control he could possibly wish for.

Set against this, Anderson remains a witty and visually daring stylist, whose best work can often have an unexpected gut-punch of emotion that metaphorically tears the pretty set decoration to shreds. And whilst his screenplays can seem arch, they are also capable of brilliant wit. The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the most quotable comedy of its kind since Withnail and I, full of countless brilliant one-liners, delivered at a lick by Fiennes. In its central preoccupation — the clash between the old order and the new — it is possible to see in Anderson the sensibility of an old-fashioned American penseur, a Henry James character who has arrived in Europe and swiftly decides he values the old world more than he does his own country. Perhaps fittingly, Anderson divides his time between an apartment in Paris and a house in Kent, not far from Rye, where James made his own home.

His films may be arch, twee and occasionally gnomic, but they are also generous, beautiful and distinctive. This is testament to Wes Anderson’s fine and unique ability to connect with audiences and to inspire them in a way that few other filmmakers can. Long may he continue to do so.


Alexander Larman