Cannes 2012: Cardboard Kingdom
Published on May 19th, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer0
On Wednesday, May 16, the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival opened with “Moonrise Kingdom,” the seventh feature directed by Wes Anderson.
There is a depth of character, storytelling, and place in Wes Anderson’s first three films—”Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”—that is lacking in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and, most recently, “Moonrise Kingdom.” The earlier films employ a certain signature Andersonian artifice in terms of characters, dialogue, and acting, and, progressively, in terms of mise-en-scène and music. But each film is grounded in a real place that Anderson had first-hand knowledge of, whether Houston and the Texas highways of “Bottle Rocket,” St. John’s School—Anderson’s grade school alma mater and the setting for “Rushmore,” or the thickly fictionalized but still recognizable New York City of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” And in “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” at least, Anderson’s more eccentric characters stand out in intriguing contrast to the more ordinary ones, who keep the eccentrics grounded, or at least tethered to some degree to reality. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in “Rushmore” is fascinating precisely because he thinks and acts so unusually in comparison to the way nearly all of the other characters think and act. The dramatic tension in that film is built largely on Max’s struggle to reconcile his own rebellious personality with the more staid ones of Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), Bert Fischer (Seymour Cassel), Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), Peter Flynn (Luke Wilson), and Margaret Yang (Sarah Tanaka)—characters who, thankfully, feel like real people rather than caricatures. Max is not exactly well, but at least most of his friends and role models are. And Herman Blume (Bill Murray), Max’s eccentric mentor/rival, may have his own problems, but he is not a caricature and he is not presented to us in the aggressively stylized, whimsical way that Max is. In fact, Blume is both Max’s enabler and the chaotic force that threatens him. Blume may have been written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, but Bill Murray plays him with an edge that is all his own. “Bottle Rocket” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” too, feature father/mentor figures who inject a disruptive volatility into their respective films—Mr. Henry (James Caan) in “Bottle Rocket” and Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The first three Anderson films benefit enormously from the performances of these three veteran actors, each of whom brings to his role a vitality and rough-hewn quality developed over decades of screen acting.
Where it all went wrong was with “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”—the first of Anderson’s films to come completely unmoored from reality. If “Bottle Rocket” presented a pair of endearing but pathetic Max Fischer-like misfits, and if “Rushmore” enobled Max Fischer, and if “The Royal Tenenbaums” presented a house full of depressed but rich, talented, and successful Max Fischers, then “The Life Aquatic” introduced us to an entire world of Max Fischers. Having been lauded as a creative genius, Max Fischer—I mean, Wes Anderson—no longer had to hold back from realizing his vision of creating a painstakingly decorated dollhouse world for each of his subsequent live-action movies. And this vision extends over every aspect of “The Life Aquatic,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and “Moonrise Kingdom”—films in which the characters themselves, however talented the actors who play them, come across as dolls in their director’s dollhouses, caricatures rather than characters, as lacking in depth and substance as all the carefully placed accoutrements that surround them in each diorama-like camera set-up. Since “The Life Aquatic,” Anderson’s live-action films have existed seemingly for no other reason than to present us with spectacles of cute, innocent, orderly quaintness pastiched together from every nostalgic source Anderson can find. They are entirely surface-level spectacles. Life-size museum dioramas are more moving because at least they try to teach us something, while Anderson’s latest films can’t be bothered to offer any references to actual history. Existing outside of history, they serve merely as exercises in childish idiosyncracy. The characters appear as stiff, flattened-out inhabitants of Anderson’s elaborately confining worlds.
And that brings us, at last, to “Moonrise Kingdom,” set arbitrarily in the year 1965 on the made-up island of New Penzance—once the home of the fictitious Chickchaw Indians—located somewhere off the coast of New England. The film opens nauseatingly with a full tour, one diorama-like shot after another, of the lighthouse home of twelve-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and her family. She’s reading a book called “Shelly and the Secret Universe,” one of many books—all fake—that we’ll see and occasionally hear her reading throughout the film. Anderson shows us every elaborately decorated quaint-as-can-be room of the house, as if to say, “Look how neat all of this is!” We quickly see that Suzy has three little brothers (triplets?) who all appear to be about seven years old, and who spend all their time indoors listening to Benjamin Britten records and playing board games. And we see that Suzy’s parents are played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Suzy seems bored, trapped, hungry for escape. As charming as her home may be—at least on a superficial level—she seems like a bird stuck in a cage, trying quietly but determinedly to get out.
Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the twelve-year-old member of the Khaki Scouts of North America with whom Suzy will fall reciprocally in love, has already escaped Camp Ivanhoe, located far to the south of Suzy’s home, much to the worry of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who, when he discovers that Sam has disappeared, exclaims, “Jiminy Cricket! He’s flown the coop!” It turns out that Sam is off to meet Suzy, who, perched atop her family’s lighthouse, is looking out across the island with the aid of binoculars. When Sam met Suzy a year earlier, she was dressed as a raven. So it should come as no surprise that coop-flying Sam and Suzy the Raven’s song is “Cuckoo!” by Benjamin Britten. They are a pair of birds who found each other and escaped the confines of their cages—a claustrophobic home in which Suzy feels neglected by her parents and disliked by her little brothers, and a camp for boys in which Sam, an orphan, is for some reason the least popular scout. If there is any magic in this film, it occurs for a few brief moments after Suzy and Sam first meet. The shooting style and mise-en-scène change briefly and refreshingly as they enter into the forest. They, and we, have at last escaped the rigid Andersonian shoebox prisons that the opening scenes presented to us in such gratuitous detail, first the house and then the camp. But in a Wes Anderson movie, there may be respite from order, but there is ultimately no escape.