Let’s Talk About Sex, Wes Anderson


For a filmmaker so preoccupied with adolescence, why does Anderson avoid portrayals of intimacy?

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Writer/director Pedro Almodovar once referred to film as a conversation between a director and his audience. Let’s run with this metaphor and say that it’s finally time for Wes Anderson to start talking to us about sex. How is it that eight features into his career, the usually R-rated indie filmmaker has never once shown filmgoers a proper sex scene? Consider Anderson’s contemporaries: David O. Russell made a whole film about a character who wants to bed his mother (Spanking the Monkey) and showed us Anderson-regular Jason Schwartzman humping Isabelle Huppert on a pile of mud in I Heart Huckabees. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us the most aggressively painful handjob in cinematic history via The Master and—oh, yeah—the two-and-a-half-hour porn-world epic Boogie Nights. Even a filmmaker like Spike Jonze, who seems just as shy as Wes Anderson when it comes to talking about copulation, has given us the horror of Nicolas Cage’s sweaty, balding masturbation in Adaptation and sex with one’s iPhone in Her.

Anderson apologists will no doubt reference the under-the-covers, cut-away lovemaking in Bottle Rocket; jokes about handjobs in Rushmore; potential sibling congress in The Royal Tenenbaums; a topless script girl in The Life Aquatic; Jason Schwartzman licking his hand in The Darjeeling Limited; and the truly creepy early-teenage girl in Moonrise Kingdom, dancing in her bra and referencing her co-star’s erection (re-watching that scene in our post-Dylan Farrow’s letter world can give one the creeps; not by suggesting anything untoward about Anderson himself, but rather by bringing up questions about what constitutes entertainment by way of passing the Cannes Film Festival authenticity sniff test in today’s culture). By most any standard, none of Anderson’s “sex scenes” so far have gone far enough (except, oddly, Moonrise Kingdom, which does go too far). This visual prudishness isn’t in itself such an issue. Many great filmmakers find ways to avoid sex; though it’s difficult to name one off-hand (or even after hours of consideration). The nagging feeling though is that Anderson has been going out of his way to avoid the topic.

Getting to First Base

Martin Scorsese (one of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking heroes) was an early fan of his style and noted in a 2000 Esquire essay, “[Anderson] knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness.” Based off of Anderson’s filmography up to that point (1996’s Bottle Rocket and 1998’s Rushmore), Scorsese’s note feels dead-on. And when Anderson is at his best, he’s still able to convey this joy of interaction as well as any filmmaker working today. His screenplays must be a delight for actors to read (even if many of those men and women who end up cast are increasingly used as mere props in Anderson’s decoupage of light and sound). Appreciating the filmmaker’s love of language and ability to mix highbrow references with jolts of profanity (the main reason for his films’ frequent R ratings) is a key to enjoying any Anderson movie.

Some of his comedic bits are so good, in fact, (such as a sequence in Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which a progression of concierges tell their underlings to “take over” increasingly ridiculous tasks) that one wonders if an alternative universe Anderson could have benefited from sharpening this instinct even further with a few years in a good writers’ room, constructing jokes and scenes for someone else, as Charlie Kaufman did as a staff writer on The Dana Carvey Show in the mid-’90s. Similarly, Saturday Night Live’s recent spoof of Anderson’s filmmaking style felt like more of a tribute than a lashing, though it did work in pointing to the absurd levels that Anderson currently reaches in order to continue expanding his world and find human jokes within its artifice.

This leads to a significant problem within Budapest. The reason why the humor in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore worked so well was that the jokes were based on recognizable humor behavior. At the significant risk of getting too pontifical, here’s how comedy works: you depict a world as it really and then exaggerate elements of that world for giggles. This “rule” explains why it’s so difficult for fantasy and science fiction programs to ever be funny. A joke on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Lord of the Rings will fall flat if you don’t understand the idiosyncrasies of Klingon/human interaction or a hobbit’s need for two breakfasts. And even if you do grasp such specifics, it’s hard to truly identify with the acknowledgement of such fictional stereotypes. How can something ring true if it is, in fact, entirely false?

Such is the issue with Anderson’s later filmography. Everything in The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, is so thoroughly outside of our understanding of reality that the laughs (and there are a bunch) often come from when a line of dialogue is delivered in a way that comically reminds us of a character’s humanity or in the goofy flourish of a visual detail in Anderson’s increasingly animated film universe.

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel involves a fictional hotel in the fictional European country of Zubrowka as told to an author (played by Jude Law and also— earlier/later—by Tom Wilkinson) and the story as its later written by that author and (presumably) published and read by a young girl hanging out in a cemetery. It’s as exhausting as it sounds. Anderson has twisted not just the narrative structure of a typical film but also the documented and understood world of 1930s Europe into such a convoluted pretzel of kookiness that audience members can do little but attempt to pick up on errant references (“Oh, the ZZ is supposed to be like a swastika”) and enjoy the hijinks along the way.

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But Back to the Sex

The increasingly goofy nature of the film worlds captured in recent Wes Anderson movies make it difficult to acknowledge sexuality or even violence in all but the most exaggerated of forms. Two interesting, mid-career glimpses of sincerity on both fronts can be found in Anderson’s surprisingly sexually interested short film Hotel Chevalier, a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, and in the blood-soaked water of a death scene found in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In Grand Budapest, there are a handful of arguably sexual, shocking or grotesque moments, all of which lack any sincerity, and all of which are played for laughs: fingers are cut off by a slamming door; an elderly woman is glimpsed performed fellatio on Ralph Fiennes’ concierge character, Gustave H.; a woman’s severed head is pulled out of a box; a shoot-out produces no blood and plenty of laughs.

But those are still bullets being fired. That’s a severed head. Those fingers are being sliced off in the same animated style as Anderson used to depict a cartoon fish in The Life Aquatic. To be so goofy and cavalier about such heightened moments of pain and shock certainly seems like an act of immaturity.

And what of Gustave H.’s tendency to sleep with the elderly female guests who stay at the Grand Budapest Hotel? This is all fairly glossed over in Anderson’s world (the guy likes having sex with older women, ha ha), but this decision on Gustave’s part and the act of “doing it” are so essential to everything else that happens in the film that to gloss over this detail is at once narratively careless and aesthetically coward.

In order to find the depiction of a healthy sexual relationship between consenting adults in one of Anderson’s films, you have to go all of the way back to Bottle Rocket. In Anderson’s first film, amateur thief Anthony (played by Luke Wilson) earnestly pursues motel maid Inez (by Lumi Cavazos). They form a relationship and in a key scene, they have sex. This isn’t played for laughs. It’s touching. And so much of the rest of Anthony’s decisions in the film (and he is Bottle Rocket’s protagonist, despite Dignan’s charismatic presence) involve his love for Inez. Such love shines through in that glimpse of a sex scene in the motel room, as Love’s “Alone Again Or” plays over the soundtrack:

Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun

Anderson’s love and appreciation for regular, everyday people, the feeling that he “could be in love with almost everyone” shines through in Bottle Rocket. And then even as early as Rushmore, Anderson feels the need to construct the most elaborate, intelligent and seemingly sophisticated of characters in the form of Max Fischer. And with each subsequent film, Anderson gets further away from the authenticity of Bottle Rocket’s Anthony and Dignan and closer to the quirky faux-perfection of Max Fischer or Steve Zissou or Gustave H.

If Anderson wants to continue to construct increasingly fanciful worlds, moving further and further from his Texas roots and deeper into the Coppola and European-influenced sophistication of his later films, that’s his prerogative and he’ll surely continue making funny, diverting movie along the way. But it would be great if Anderson were to take a moment and try to depict a true sex scene or an honest glimpse of unapologetically cruel and not-for-laughs violence. After all, such behavior represents not just the extremes to which humanity can be expressed, but also a way in which any narrative world can be linked to the harsh realities of the world as we know it.

Maybe sex, ultimately, isn’t Wes Anderson’s “thing.” In Rushmore, Max Fischer’s father response to his son’s comment that he should “probably be trying harder to score chicks” by telling Max, “You’re like one of those clipper ship captains. You’re married to the sea.”

“That’s true,” Max says. “But I’ve been out to sea for a long time.”

Perhaps for Anderson, it’s time for his own subtext to come home to roost.

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Originally published on The Bygone Bureau on January 20th, 2014; edited by Nathan Pensky; republished here with permission