"The paths of glory lead but to the grave." So reads the headstone above the burial place of Eloise Fischer, mother of Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer, in Wes Anderson's 1998 film Rushmore. An extract from Thomas Gray's 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, it might seem a more fitting epitaph for the tomb of a great military hero than this unremarkable grave. But Anderson's films don't exist within our dull reality – his worlds are fairy tales, and like all good fairy tales, they begin with death.
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Everything Anderson dreams up is ultimately about life's first inevitability, and the craterous absence it leaves in the lives of the bereaved – even if they might not be prepared to admit it. Max's traumatic loss of his mother, for example, is mentioned just twice in Rushmore's script, and both times briefly. But her presence, or lack thereof, defines all that Max does – particularly his strange, Oedipal obsession with the widowed Mrs Cross (Olivia Williams). Rushmore is a film about lonely, damaged people seeking human connection, and this spectre of unresolved grief haunts the Texan director's output.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Ben Stiller plays the cartoonish but traumatised Chas (Credit: Alamy)
Despite this thematic absorption, death is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind when considering Anderson's oeuvre. His distinctively affected visual style has been subject to both criticism and parody. A 2013 Saturday Night Live sketch imagined an Andersonian horror film called The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders; brimming with twee pretensions, dad-rock needle-drops and oddly detached performances. But this preoccupation with the offbeat surface of Anderson's work underestimates his deep understanding of the human condition and the gentle empathy which pervades his filmmaking.
From his debut feature Bottle Rocket (1996), the director's reliance on understatement has lent his work a unique profundity. When Luke Wilson's awkwardly inept crook Anthony Adams candidly remarks, "I'm usually so exhausted now at the end of the days that I don't have time to think about blown opportunities or wasted time," he betrays an immense and existential sadness that cuts disarmingly to the heart of his lot in life.
Anderson's protagonists bury their trauma beneath a facade of caricature, and their journeys are defined by how they deal with their grief
This peculiar aloofness is a distinctive trait in Anderson's characters, but it is only a varnish on deeply rooted experiences of tragedy and emotional trauma. Ben Stiller's Chas Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) appears to be a cartoonish figure with his hypochondriac mania and bright red tracksuit, but at his core he is a man disturbed by the death of his wife and the weight of his continuing responsibility towards their children.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) in The Life Aquatic is a protagonist whose journey is defined by grief (Credit: Alamy)
Likewise, Bill Murray's title character in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is a transparently absurd personality from the moment he first dons his crimson beanie and holstered Glock, but the brutal death of his best friend, for which he vows revenge, is no less ghastly as a result. Anderson's protagonists bury their trauma beneath a facade of caricature, and their journeys are defined by how they deal with their grief.
Loss continues to hang over Anderson's latest film, The French Dispatch (2021), which is perhaps his most nakedly sentimental work. Opening with the death of a long-serving magazine editor, the film is structured as an episodic obituary for a man, a publication, and an entire industry facing gradual extinction. The name of the fictional French city in which the film is set, Ennui-sur-Blasé, unsubtly signposts this atmosphere of melancholic nostalgia. The colourful characters we've come to expect from Anderson are still present, but their eccentricities contribute to a tableau of mid-century journalism as an exciting and noble arena, since lost to time.
Death had an even more explicit presence in an earlier version of the film. The writer and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz tells BBC Culture, "The prologue to The French Dispatch originally ended with Owen Wilson in a graveyard having a picnic near the grave of a young woman, presumably his wife". It seems there is so much mourning in Anderson's worlds that he can afford to cut some of it for pacing.
While Anderson is deft in walking the line between farce and tragedy, he occasionally suspends his broadly comedic sensibility for moments of unadulterated horror. When Richie Tenenbaum attempts suicide, the frankness with which it is depicted is sudden and distressing. Equally, the death of Steve Zissou's son Ned, or the fatal accident during the river crossing in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), deliver an unexpectedly brutal gut punch. These moments of catastrophe enforce a sense of real and terrifying consequence into Anderson's fantastical worlds.
Anderson's films – including The Grand Budapest Hotel – frequently address the theme of death (Credit: Alamy)
"Death is the biggest thing that we can't control. We can't even know what lies beyond it," Seitz tells BBC Culture. "Accepting this constitutes a harsh lesson for Wes Anderson protagonists, who are often obsessed with controlling everything."
Anderson is not shy in crediting his influences, from filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to the writer Stefan Zweig, but the director's own experiences also provide a major source of inspiration. His films are littered with autobiographical details; Rushmore, for example, was filmed in the director's own alma mater, St John's School in Houston, Texas, while the family conflict at the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums was inspired by his own parents' divorce.
The most sobering moment in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) comes as Zero Moustafa reveals to M Gustave that his entire family was killed in an earlier war. Speaking to Seitz for his 2015 book on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson elaborates that Zero's harrowing story was inspired by his partner, Juman Malouf, and the experiences of her family in Lebanon.
Ultimately the movie didn't mean anything to me until the characters started to become connected to things that I had been through – Wes Anderson
Perhaps it's because there's so much of Anderson in his own work that it never feels crass when he mixes sensitive themes with absurdist humour. As producer James L Brooks writes in his introduction to Anderson and Owen Wilson's Rushmore screenplay, "They have pulled off the hardest trick in all of contemporary American film: they have won the freedom to use movies as a form of self-expression."
During the director's commentary on the Criterion edition of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson explains the dual impulses of visual invention and emotional authenticity that motivate him. "This is a movie where there's a lot of artifice… and it's fun for me to work on those things," he says, "but ultimately the movie didn't mean anything to me until the characters started to become connected to things that I had been through."
In The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers travel to India in search of enlightenment but find instead a new respect for each other (Credit: Alamy)
So powerful is Anderson's empathy for his characters and their emotional distress that there is rarely room for outright villains in his stories – the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and the fascist ZigZag movement in Grand Budapest being exceptions. As director Martin Scorsese reflected for Esquire in March 2000, "[Bottle Rocket] was a movie without a trace of cynicism, that obviously grew out of its director's affection for his characters in particular and for people in general. A rarity."
A common thread across Anderson's work is the healing power of simple human connection. When Chas Tenenbaum confides to his father, Gene Hackman's Royal, "I've had a rough year, Dad", the response is simply, "I know you have, Chassie''. Both understand all that he's going through, and simply vocalising it is the first step in a deeper reconciliation.
Similarly, when Steve Zissou finally faces the Jaguar Shark that killed his best friend, having lost his own son in pursuit of revenge, all he can say is, "I wonder if it remembers me?" It's a phrase loaded with the meaning of a thousand monologues. How many of us have wasted time in search of things we didn't really want, and neglected what we do in the process?
For the Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, their journey to India may not have brought the intended spiritual enlightenment or reconciliation with their estranged mother, but they nevertheless find their love and respect for one another renewed. In the film's closing moments, as they toss aside the hideously printed leather luggage they inherited from their father, they cleanse themselves of the emotional baggage that had pushed them apart.
The French Dispatch is a portrayal of mid-century journalism – and loss is a theme throughout the film (Credit: Alamy)
Not all of Anderson's characters are able to come to terms with their grief so cleanly. The scale of Zero's loss in The Grand Budapest Hotel is such that he is unable to recover. Concluding his life story to Jude Law's author, he glosses over the execution of M Gustave and tragically premature death of his wife and child. As the playwright Anne Washburn writes in her introduction to Seitz's book, "In the character of Zero Mustafa, we see a man who has adapted to his losses but has never rebuilt his life, choosing instead to enshrine his past; he is a testament, rather than a true survivor".
Being a survivor comes with its own responsibilities to continue the memory of those who have passed, a burden that Anderson is keen to bear. The end credits of The French Dispatch duly feature a dedication to a number of 20th-Century writers and journalists, all of whom have long since filed their final dispatch. The lasting impression is the same sentiment of fading glory and inevitable decay that decorated Elouise Fischer's grave in Rushmore, and has since reached across Wes Anderson's career.
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