Formalist Goes to Camp

Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, and Jason Schwartzman in Moonrise Kingdom.Photo: Niko Tavernise/Courtesy of Focus Features

One shot and you know it’s a Wes Anderson film, no mistaking it for anyone else’s. The frames are off-symmetrical, their strong human centers unevenly flanked, the balance precarious, as if existence itself were a seesaw. Yet there’s also something airless—congealed—about those frames. Visually, Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s most hermetic movie (which is saying a lot), its mixture of passion and museum-diorama detachment singularly odd. It left me bemused instead of moved, but true Andersonites will likely float away in a state of nirvana.

The film, which ends with a prominent dedication to Anderson’s girlfriend, writer Juman Malouf, is a love story, a union of two lonely, capacious inner worlds. We see the girl first, 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward), who peers with binoculars through the window of her family’s large beach house on an island off New England. She watches her mother, Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand), meet in secret with a lovelorn sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), while her father, Mr. Bishop (Bill Murray), is off somewhere being irrelevant. Across the island, 12-year-old orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) is on a scouting expedition—or at least is supposed to be. When the kind but ineffectual “Khaki Scout” master Ward (Edward Norton) opens Sam’s tent, he finds a door cut out the side and no boy. “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” he exclaims. It soon becomes clear that Sam and Suzy are making their painstaking way toward each other, with the unromantic grown-ups in pursuit.

The synopsis above is far too plain to convey the auteurist-bait mise-en-scène of Moonrise Kingdom, which opens with a fluid, stately, left-to-right shot past color-coordinated, dollhouselike rooms. At one point in the overture, Anderson lingers on an impressionistic needlepoint of a beach house, and the image returns when the camera zooms back from Suzy in the tower window to reveal her inside the house in the design. So this universe is a big, recursive art object. Throughout the sequence, the Bishop children listen to Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the narrator busily breaking the ensemble down to its component parts. Anderson is all but begging the Frenchies (and Frenchies-at-heart) to deconstruct his movie. The opening-night Cannes Film Festival audience must have been speaking in tongues.

Wherefore all this style? Writing about an especially ostentatious production, Kenneth Tynan quoted French critic Hippolyte Taine: “La perfection du style, c’est la disparition du style.” Real style, in other words, doesn’t call attention to itself because to do so would be … unstylish. The Anderson cult would dispute this coinage, finding in the director’s work not just beauty but ugly truth. Sometimes I concur. There have been moments in his films when I’ve wondered if that formal beauty was meant to be ironic, if Anderson was suggesting that inside these hypercontrolled frames, his individual characters were chafing at their lack of control over their emotions and destinies.

The best case you can make for the style of Moonrise Kingdom (the swoony title cries out to be translated into French) is that it’s a film unfolding in the mind of its feverishly creative male protagonist, a powerless adolescent who longs to divide, contain, control the space just so. That boy impresario was first seen in Rushmore, and to a degree every Wes Anderson movie is a “Max Fisher Production”—with Max in this case cribbing some fancy horizontal moves from Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The script continues the sad tale of children whose parents can’t parent. Informed that Sam has run away from the scouts, his foster father (Larry Pine) tells the sheriff not to bother bringing him back. Suzy, whose father and mother are preoccupied with their own problems, tells Sam that she envies him because orphans lead such special lives in the Harry Potter–like magical adventures she reads. Replies Sam, who has just apologized in advance in case he wets their shared bed, “I love you, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Moonrise Kingdom has other lines that good, enough to make me wish that Anderson hadn’t reverted so aggressively to form (i.e., formalism) after moving the other way in The Darjeeling Limited. The movie is a showcase for cinematographer Robert Yeoman, production designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone, and the tag-team composers Britten and Alexandre Desplat, but not so much for the actors. McDormand, Willis, and Norton seem as if they’re tithing their likable selves (and bankable names) to the Church of Wes—although Murray has one affecting moment when his character sits up in bed and says, “I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked up into space. You’d be better off without me,” and McDormand replies, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” In the let’s-add-another-instrument-to-the-mix Anderson spirit, Bob Balaban pops up as an island historian and talks to the camera. Tilda Swinton, as the orphan-snatching “Social Services,” wears her luminous violet suit beautifully. The kids are fine in their debuts, Hayward’s lively blue eyes registering under gobs of mascara, Gilman somewhat upstaged by glasses that cover a third of his face and a raccoon cap that takes care of his hair.

These 12-year-olds do some heavy petting—second base, to be anatomically exact—that’s sure to arouse controversy, with Americans calling for Anderson’s arrest and the French for a sexier director’s cut.

On the other side of the aesthetic cosmos from the formal, intellectualized Moonrise Kingdom comes the knockout Norwegian drama Oslo, August 31st, which crosses the blood-brain barrier like … like … whatever the drug is, I haven’t tried it, thank God. The movie eats into your mind—­slowly. The protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), is a cleaned-up junkie on his first trip to the big city—for a job ­interview—after nearly a year as an inpatient. He’s 34, the love of his life is long gone, and his retired parents are in the process of selling their house to cover his frightening debts. Director Joachim Trier follows him for 24 hours, beginning with Anders in a motel beside an old Swedish girlfriend (barely glimpsed) on the morning of August 30 and ending with his return to a different bed under much different circumstances. Each moment of what follows is quiet—and momentous.

Movies about addicts trying to stay straight are more alike than unalike, and this one has other echoes—it’s inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet, the basis of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within. Oslo, August 31st is even more gruelingly subjective than its predecessor. Early scenes capture the ache of a man for whom transcendence is beyond reach. What’s his problem? Nurture, nature, modern life, dopamine depletion, the noonday demon. Anders’s old drinking-drugging pal Thomas, married with two young kids and a dull job, has a crazy glint in his eyes when he opens a beer at lunch and settles down to hear about Anders’s prospects. Thomas is afraid for his old friend—he senses doom—yet seems to envy Anders’s freedom to destroy himself. Being forced to look at one’s life from the outside brings Thomas down, too.

The naturalism is fleeting, deceptive: In one scene, Trier evokes Anders’s selective hypersensitivity as he sits in a café, picking up stray bits of conversation. He can’t escape from people he has hurt, can’t employ his usual defenses. Anders winds up at a party, too vulnerable to relax, his rhythms off. The movie’s temporal reality shifts with its tempo. A blurring comes and then a sharp return to the world.

A directive I’ve read in recovery literature is “Don’t just sit there, do nothing.” Danielson Lie—who has the wiry build and injured, unblinking blue eyes of Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad—makes Anders a man who is incapable of doing nothing, whose insides churn so fiercely that he can’t even manage a mild mope. Yet Oslo, August 31st is too penetrating to shrug off as the latest piece of miserablism from the festival circuit. It’s that rare downer that leaves you wide awake, with all synapses firing.

Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Focus Features. R.

Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier.
Strand Releasing. NR.

Formalist Goes to Camp