Wes Anderson has finally gone mad

Wes Anderson has finally gone mad

His new movie, Asteroid City, brings a necessary madness to the director’s meticulous method, and it’s a masterpiece.
Photo: Courtesy of Pop. 87 targeted productions/features

To the casual observer, Wes Anderson may seem like someone who refuses to read his own press or who bought his press to an absurd degree. Those picky arrangements, symmetrical compositions, and precise tracking shots that have become the stuff of viral videos and sneaky social media memes aren’t going away. While other filmmakers might respond to their detractors by branching out and shaking things up, Anderson, like Federico Fellini before him, doubles down on his stylistic quirks. My colleague Alison Willmore (accurately) called her latest effort, The French Dispatch, “the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever done.” The same could probably be said for every new Anderson film and certainly for the wonderful city ​​of asteroidswhich has just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

There is a point to all this indulgence. Anderson’s obsessively constructed dioramas explore the very human need to organize, quantify and control our lives in the face of the unexpected and the uncertain. The regimented universe of Moonrise Kingdom is sent into a spiraling decline by the mania of young love. The middle of the Mitteleuropaïsch candy box of The Grand Budapest Hotel is undone by the creeping evil of authoritarianism. The romantic and continental fascinations of The French Dispatch are stricken by protest, injustice and violence. city ​​of asteroids could be the purest expression of this dynamic because it is about the unknown in all its forms. Death, the search for God, the creation of art, the exuberance of love, the mysteries of the cosmos – in Anderson’s story, these are all facets of the same thing.

city ​​of asteroids is set in September 1955, at a time in the middle of the century when anything seemed possible. Even if this spirit of optimism was belied by reality: the Second World War is in the rear view mirror, but its traumas linger, and the mushrooms in the distance suggest a potentially more threatening future. These explosions come from an atomic test facility not far from Asteroid City, population 83, a city that is itself the very definition of an in-between, a collection of motel bungalows built near a crater of 100-foot meteor, “halfway between parched ravine and arid plains.

Daring curiosity is in the air, as this dead-end ghost town has been overrun by young astronomers and space cadets, a group of teenagers and their families who have come together for a contest organized by the military American and the local observatory. Among the families are the Steenbecks, led by widowed war photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), who has yet to tell his children that their mother died several weeks ago. (“The time never came.”) As in so many Anderson films, the children are precocious introverts, while the adults are comically haunted. As Augie’s teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) begins to fall for Dinah (Grace Edwards), a 15-year-old botanical magician, Augie falls for his mother, Hollywood actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Sporting a black eye for research purposes, the actress warns the war photographer in advance that she plays “tragic and abused alcoholics” and will likely one day be found dead in a bathtub surrounded by pills.

Anderson’s films have become more diffused over the years with an ever-expanding dramatis personae, a particularly apt term in this case since we’re told what we’re watching is actually a play written by the legendary playwright. American Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The film actually begins on a black-and-white television stage with the story told by a Rod Serling-like host, played by Bryan Cranston. (So ​​really, it’s a play within a play within a TV production within a movie.) The host reminds us that “city ​​of asteroids does not exist. This is a fantasy drama created expressly for the purposes of this show. The characters are fictitious, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication. In other words, history itself is a ghost, unknowable.

At various points, Anderson returns to “actors” playing many of the aforementioned roles. Like the people they represent, they too struggle with their own fears of the unknown. They are also in 1955, at a time when the work of the Actors Studio was transforming Hollywood and when craftsmanship and discipline took a back seat to the animating secrets of the soul. Fresh-faced neurotic Jones Hall (also played by Schwartzman, naturally) struggles to accurately portray Augie’s grief. But in his distraction, we learn, lies the genius of the actor.

The audacity and beauty of city ​​of asteroids lies in the way it connects the mysteries of the human heart with the secrets of science and the universe. When visitors to Asteroid City encounter a real alien, it rocks their world, both altering their very notions of reality and pushing them even further into their previous assumptions. (In the face of the unknown, it turns out we cling even more to our identities.) The visit also disrupts Anderson’s ornate cinematic world, as the film gets faster, weirder, funnier, warmer. – almost as if the filmmaker himself was digging through his material, desperately searching for an explanation for the mysteries he uncovered.

Towards the end of the film, Jones steps away from the role of Augie and meets the actress (Margot Robbie) who was to play the role of his wife but would have been cut from the finished play. As the two reminisce about the scene they would have had together, Anderson’s fantasy slips away to reveal a perfect moment: two people communing with the mess of life through their memory of a scene that doesn’t exist, of a play that never happened, presented in a theatrical-cinematic fiction pretending to be a television show. I cried like a baby. There’s always been a method to Wes Anderson’s madness, but city ​​of asteroids reminds us that there is also a madness in his method. And that’s ultimately what makes him a great artist.

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