CANNES – It’s not often that a filmmaker’s cheerleaders and detractors alike can agree upon a single convenient adjective. But for better and for worse, “precious” has been a defining term for Wes Anderson’s unapologetically affected filmography ever since “Rushmore” dressed up the grainy funk of “Bottle Rocket” into something a little more preppily composed.
From any perspective, “precious” covers the thematic and aesthetic delicacy of his films, their exactingly designed construction and perennially nostalgic gaze. Whether that degree of refinement is something cherishable or enervating, however, is in the eye of the beholder. To say, then, that “Moonrise Kingdom” — a neurotically designed and almost exhaustingly cute return to the pre-adult concerns of 1998’s “Rushmore” — is Anderson’s most precious film to date scarcely qualifies as a value judgment. But it is, and you can attach to it what value you will.
One might say that Anderson’s sweetly brittle tendencies as a stylist have met their textual match in the thin narrative of “Moonrise,” revolving as it does around two preternaturally wistful pre-teen misfits who sexlessly elope to a remote corner of the sleepy New England island they call home. Few contemporary filmmakers feel quite as directly qualified to evoke the candied blush of first love, in which the sensation of new feeling is more exciting than the feeling itself, or indeed the person who inspires it: he may have hit his forties, but the emotional maturity of Anderson’s films remains boyishly, sometimes appealingly, stunted, obtusely disengaged from the dirty practicalities of adult living.
Bullying, adultery, Dickensian orphanhood and, most uncharacteristically, literal bloodshed all occur in the summery snowglobe of “Moonrise Kingdom,” yet it remains a guarded, tastefully self-scrutinizing affair, more comfortable observing human emotions than participating in them. People don”t get truly hurt in this melancholy idyll, even when they”re stabbed with scissors or struck by lightning. “Was he a good dog?” one of the young protagonists asks, after a scout group”s mutt meets an atypically sticky end. “Who”s to say?” comes the reply, laced with trademark precocity. If any hearts break in Anderson”s woozy romantic junction of Henry Purcell and Francoise Hardy records, they do so with similarly quizzical disinterest.
The kids in question, and the latest in a line of vessels for Anderson”s articulately awkward persona, are Sam and Suzy (presumably, and aptly, named for the subjects of that twee 1970s radio hit “Muskrat Love”), a pair of 12 year-old voluntary outcasts who wear their respective diagnosed psychological complexes with as much coolly disguised pride as they would wear a new pair of sneakers. Sam (Jared Gilman), a foster-family nomad hiding sharp self-protective instincts behind Coke-bottle spectacles, meets willowy, sullen rich girl Suzy (striking young Lana Del Ray-alike Kara Hayward) at a church production of Noah”s Ark; not yet old enough to recognize she has a league or two on him, they recognize in each other a kind of mutual contempt for childhood, and strike up an intimate penpal relationship.
When, a year later, Sam proposes that Suzy run away with him, it”s not independence they crave as much as a semblance of domestic security – even before a morally off-center scoutmaster offers to make a ritual of it, their escape pact amounts to a marriage. With Sam having no parents at all, and Suzy disenchanted with hers after catching wind of a coy affair between her mother (Frances McDormand, stridently harassed as ever) and the town”s dim-bulb police chief (Bruce Willis), they”re keen to enact a hazy storybook notion of adult devotion.
It”s the most openly sentimental story hook of Anderson”s career, promising a work of rare emotional availability from the tweed-suited archduke of archness – so why is it that “Moonrise Kingdom,” stuffed as it is with moments of zonked wit and lightning-bug beauty, still feels so hollow, so lacking in truth or spontaneity? Perhaps because fastidiousness – fussiness, if you”re feeling less charitable – is part and parcel of Anderson”s art: with each individual frame composed and art-directed to the nth degree, the film finally lacks the porousness required to convincingly convey less disciplined or less rational urges. Anderson feels most assured, visually and structurally, with genial chaos, and true enough, the film finds its easiest rhythmic groove in its latter half, when matters devolve into a jazzy ensemble goose-chase, as dithering search parties circle the young lovers, with Tilda Swinton”s ominously cornflower-clad Social Services (yes, that”s the character name) its sprightliest comic relief. This is all well and good, but feels like idle wheel-spinning after the earlier, unfinished suggestion of starker, sadder, uncharted intimacy.
The pleasures that remain are both plentiful and predictable: many Anderson sceptics feel inclined to complain about the consistency of his films” mise-en-scene, which strikes me as a churlish gripe in a time when the indie landscape is littered with visually anonymous digi-fodder. Whether his technical signatures – the yellowed-paperback palette, the obsessive-compulsive symmetry, the shot-reverse-shot switches in scale – delight or irritate, there”s something pleasing about being able to identify A Wes Anderson Joint from almost any given still, and “Moonrise Kingdom” may be his most unreservedly lovely production to date.
Robert D. Yeoman”s camera appears to have taken the springy New England foliage as its chief cue for both color and texture; if you could hear it beneath Alexandre Desplat”s overbearingly intricate score, you”d hear each shot rustling as the breeze fuzzes the focus; more precise is Adam Stockhausen”s period production design, a concentric succession of dollhouses within dioramas within dollhouses, its distortions floating the possibility that all of this may be playing out in a character”s memory, which might explain why its every airy thought or idealized sentiment seems one beat removed from reality. The love that Wes Anderson lavishes upon his films has never been more richly in evidence, but he remains, as ever, all love and,well, precious little passion.
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