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Cannes 2023: Asteroid City

Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in Asteroid City

in Festivals & Events
on May 23, 2023

The negative talking points around Wes Anderson—too twee, airlessly production-designed, an aesthetic in search of emotions—have metastasized thanks to a wave of AI-generated trailers of movies “in his style” (Lord of the RingsThe MatrixStar Wars—no, I’m not linking!) that seemingly prove computer fake can be just as bad as the real thing. I wish I could credit the tweet I saw (and should’ve fav’d) which pointed out that maybe part of the reason Anderson’s aesthetic is the only one being repeatedly run through the AI mill is because even a barely-film-literate coder can figure out its basic components, as codified in this representative tweet: “neoclassical symmetry, pastel color palette, flat perspective, stagelike location, cinematic framing, hyperrealistic photo.” There’s a lot terminologically wrong with this (what is “cinematic” framing? Does that just mean not looking like trash? Isn’t the perspective “forced perspective multi-plane depth” rather than “flat”?), but when I’m done calling bullshit on vocabulary I’ll reluctantly admit the basic point is acceptable. It’s probably easier for a computer to rip off Wes Anderson and “get it right” than, say, Jordan Peele. This is also all stupid: Anderson’s self-made universe is both consistently recognizable and meaningfully tweaked in each iteration, and his worldview is increasingly substantively and explicitly engaged with Big Questions about the 20th century and How We Got Here.

Asteroid City exists almost as an anachronism—a 1955-set film, shot on 35mm per usual, whose lead character, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), derives his first name from (presumably) a Saul Bellow novel and his surname (definitely) from the long-gone flatbed editing technology for celluloid. This is almost certainly the last time a new movie will reference Walter Pidgeon, and Asteroid City‘s closest relationship to the immediate present comes from its intricate echoes of Anderson’s own work, especially Rushmore: Augie’s wife is dead when the film opens, just like Max Fischer’s mom, as Schwartzman has aged from playing a single father’s child to the solo parent himself. Asteroid City itself is a play that’s an original but no less intricately staged than Max’s adaptations, and Miss Cross has been updated as a fresh-faced elementary school teacher (Maya Hawke) who equally dotes on her charges. There’s much more on the self-anthologizing front: the play is a story-within-a-story (The French Dispatch), the opening sequence takes place on a train (The Darjeeling Limited), there’s a brief moment where it looks like someone may have committed suicide in a bathroom (The Royal Tenenbaums) and a group of singing cowboys include former on-screen Anderson troubadours Seu Jorge (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and Jarvis Cocker (Fantastic Mr. Fox).

What’s definitely new, for Anderson and for all of us, is the look of the widescreen narrative that makes up the bulk of film. Shot in Spain, Asteroid City‘s fully constructed American Southwest looks like Looney Tunes meets Red Desert, an unlikely and fairly breathtaking synthesis; I couldn’t even initially tell if I was looking at live-action, cardboard cutouts or some kind of weird and imperceptible layering of the two. The Looney Tunes component is the arid desert, whose yellow canyon walls register a faint blue tint just like in animation (there’s even a puppet roadrunner); the Red Desert precedent is in the degree of outdoor color construction. Anderson didn’t paint the landscape like Antonioni did—that would be ecologically dicey—but, per Screen Daily’s Elisabet Cabeza, “the ground was covered with red soil […] in compliance with environmental shooting directives to ensure no damage to future crops.”

The story is elaborate—Anderson’s ensemble casts continue to get bigger and bigger—but simple at its emotional core: various forms of longing backgrounded by atomic anxieties. A black-and-white academy-ratio framing device positions Asteroid City as a ’50s TV play in the Playhouse 90 vein; it’s generally the least convincing part of the film, adding a layer of Brechtian distancing whose primary purpose is seemingly warning against autobiographical readings of artworks. Then again, what makes (almost) every Anderson movie pop for me beyond formalism is one moment of deep emotion that he generally embeds somewhere unexpectedly, and this time that moment comes in said framing section, so it’s hard to complain too much. And the synthesis of opposites from Asteroid City‘s TV-play-but-in-widescreen-color conceit adds another productive element: after the almost frantic overstuffing of The French Dispatch (which I enjoyed, but which my Cannes coverage colleague Blake Williams described as giving him “cognitive constipation”), Asteroid City is full of silences between dialogue and a relative lack of music for a heightened quasi-sparsity that feels new.

And, as heavily teased in promotional materials, there’s an unexpected UFO, whose arrival is closely modeled on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Steven Spielberg is not a filmmaker I’ve previously thought of in relationship to Anderson before, but the connection actually makes sense. There are a lot of weighty historical anxieties and concerns floating around Asteroid City which I don’t mean to imply are merely window dressing (Scarlett Johansson’s hybrid mashup of Marilyn Monroe’s clothing and Judy Garland’s A Star is Born haircut alone can keep acting scholars occupied for a long time), but they’re layered on top of very legible and familiar sadnesses that foreground the fracturing of the family unit. Looking back at a 1999 profile of Anderson, I was surprised by how openly he copped to Rushmore‘s autobiographical elements: Max Fischer, he said, was like him without the shyness, whose compulsive playwriting was modeled on Anderson’s coping mechanism while his parents were getting divorced. “It was kind of horrible,” he told interviewer Ruthe Stein. “I couldn’t accept it for the longest time” and it made him act out, so the school let him stage plays as a reward for uninterrupted stretches of good behavior. If, as I’ve previously written, the separation of Spielberg’s parents made for “arguably the 20th century’s most famous and culturally consequential divorce,” maybe the split of Anderson’s mother and father is the most cinematically important one of the 21st century thus far.

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