“I want to live in a Wes Anderson film / Symmetrical frames with a Kinks track playing.” These are the lyrics from one of the tracks on the amazing début album by I Cani. And their singer, Niccolò Contessait is right. The films made by the Texan director are popular for all the reasons he sings about, and more too.
The retro atmospheres that distinguish Anderson’s films generate a combination of nostalgic tenderness and bittersweet humour. These feelings are aroused thanks to the stories Anderson tells and, above all, by his photography. Wes Anderson’s style is characterised by the symmetry of the frames, as the I Cani song points out. He also uses colour, though, in a highly unique way that is stylishly distinctive but also carries meaning. His unrealistic colour schemes help reinforce the close pact with the viewer, as right from the first frame we are warned that what we are watching is not a simple imitation of reality. The artifice is on show, so we know that we are either sitting in a cinema or lying on a sofa with a laptop on our knees. In other words, we are always completely aware that what we are watching is a work of pure fiction.
A gif from “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Wes Anderson’s use of lighting also helps create emotions.
Wes Anderson’s use of lighting also helps create emotions. Let’s look at The Grand Budapest Hotel. At a certain point, the red light that pervades the beginning of the film disappears. When the plot develops into a classic spy story, and the emotional temperature of the film becomes tenser, cold tones and darkness take over. The warm, reassuring pinks and reds disappear, the night looms, the music becomes louder and the sense of mystery intensifies.
Two scenes from Grand Budapest Hotel that show the change in the film’s emotional tone
Watching Wes Anderson’s films is like sifting through the bric-a-brac in a flea market or the packed shelves of a junk shop. It means witnessing our contemporary world being taken over by a general and fascinating past. More than just a faithful reproduction, Wes Anderson’s idea of the past is a “past effect”, to paraphrase Roland Barthes’ “real effect”. His endless details, like the cover design of a book (that tells the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel) or an accessory worn by a celebrity (like the typically 1970s tennis headband worn by Richie Tenenbaum) may initially seem superfluous and with no obvious narrative function. But, in fact, they work together with the lighting and colour schemes to amplify that past effect that excites viewers, who are seduced by a world that no longer exists.
This is the excitement we feel on entering the Grand Budapest Hotel, where everything is immersed in a warm and reassuring light and the mood is that of a scintillating early twentieth century aristocratic holiday. A similar sensation is aroused when we follow Sam and Suzy as they elope in Moonrise Kingdom through a yellow and light blue haze reminiscent of old family photos (or a special Instagram filter).
One of the exhibition rooms at the “Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori” (Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures) exhibition where the predominant colour is red.
Anderson’s close attention to detail and his use of colour to create a narrative universe is also evident in “Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori” (Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures), the exhibition project created by the director and the illustrator and designer Juman Malouf, currently on display at the Prada Foundation in Milan until January 13th 2020. Inspired by the Wunderkammer, the vogue of collecting exotic objects from all over the world that was fashionable between the 16th and 18th centuries, this exhibition brings together 538 very different artworks and items, ranging from a sarcophagus containing the mummy of a shrew (the Spitzmaus coffin) to a fox-shaped helmet that belonged to Ferdinand I and a bracelet of Egyptian faïence pearls that dates back to 3000 BCE. The exhibition is a reflection of what guides collectors’ desire to collect and preserve material. The items are grouped according to new relationships and one of the criteria adopted by the two curators is that of colour. Visitors move from the green room to the red room, and the exhibition experience, just like Anderson’s films, is a real aesthetic journey.
So, whether it happens to be a film or an exhibition, every Wes Anderson experience seems to intercept a zeitgeist, as indicated by projects like @accidentallywesanderson, an Instagram account that posts photos from all over the world that look as if they are stills from one of the Texan director’s films.