Asteroid City: The Substance of Style

Thankfully, The French Dispatch (2021) was more blip than downturn. It was concerning, though: the film’s shallowness indicative of a director perhaps lost in aesthetics and assigned to the ranks of self-imitation. But then you have Asteroid City, not only a great film but one that reminds you of why Wes Anderson films are great, that his approach to filmmaking is more its own genre than its own style — in which repeated motifs and approaches are used to carve out clear differences. When he is at his best, he uses a pristine aesthetic as a tool to reveal themes, emotion or humanity (or just great humour). Asteroid City is not him at his best but it is a reminder of his intentionality and mastery of a specific approach.

There is certainly a greatest hits element to Asteroid City, arguably in a limiting way (a fun part of this being a (rather great) turn from Tom Hanks that also feels like Tom Hanks is playing Bill Murray in a Wes Anderson film playing a character). We start with a framing device — a Twilight Zone homage with Bryan Cranston as ‘The Host’ that takes us into a tale of the strange. This framing device only takes us one layer deeper, as we then have Edward Norton playing a very Tennessee Williams playwright, and the film is ultimately his story. Only his story is told through another story: a lush adaptation of his play Asteroid City that takes up the majority of the film and that works as its own independent layer and its own filmic reality. It certainly could work as the only layer, the wrapping being a return to the nested approach of The Grand Budapest Hotel. That latter film gets more out of stories within stories but Asteroid City still benefits from this Matryoshka structure.

The Cranston layer pushes the audience to think allegorically, to take it all as parable and to go beyond mere aesthetic engagement — yet also supplies its very own unique and engaging aesthetic. The layer of frustrated writer, and the story behind the play, is kept nicely in the background and becomes deeply additive. It allows the work at the centre, Asteroid City, to be able to comment on itself without becoming overly self-referential. This is also a powerful reminder about underpinnings, of the things beneath art that make it tick — and how performance changes a work. The actors are really the focus, the ode to actors to follow The French Dispatch‘s ode to writers. But this time it is subtext rather than shoehorned text. With the framing in place, Asteroid City becomes escapism and the very aesthetic of it becomes the purpose. Style over substance is out the window as Anderson deftly employs style as substance, allowing him to have charming and irreverent dialogue (and gags aplenty) while carrying maturity and melancholy in the visual language.

The look of Asteroid City (the text within the text) is so pristine and perfect. It is dominated by shiny surfaces and purposeful camera moves. A sense of stagecraft is maintained through the camera being primarily limited to pans and dolly shots (outside of stunning static framings). The camera is an observer of a place, moving mechanically rather than fluidly through a space, giving the mise-en-scene the feel of a diorama, or of a wide open stage. There is an archness to its language and this is key to the movie’s messaging. Anderson wields archness so well, here, deeply aware that he is seen as only such to so many. Here, he employs surface as a smokescreen, as a reflection of characters and how they hide their interiority. The surface is so precise and meticulous but our primary characters are so fractured and scuffed. They are surrounded with pencil sketch evocations of larger than life figures, all deeply fun and lightening up the screen (Jeffrey Wright’s speech as a military commander being a perfect example of a one note character played note perfect). These shallow ancillary figures are part of the projected artifice, where at the centre there is Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson as figures hiding behind stoic facades. The film presents stoicism because it understands stoicism: a front for brittle emotion.

Therefore we have a real dolls house, a house of cards even. A delicate construction that is overtly false and deeply fragile. Fragility is a central theme. In the film’s second layer, the play’s director (Adrien Brody) is living in the theatre and estranged from his wife and wider family. He focuses only on his art and pushes for meaning in it and he is so very empty. A perfect framing has him stood behind a box, almost like he is coming out of it, that reads ‘Theatre Property’ (or words to that effect) and has a warning about fragility. It’s a background thing, one of so many, but an oddly profound one due to its precision — and also works as visual gag. This search for meaning is what unites the film’s layers, and what gives them (somewhat ironically) meaning, and purpose. Cranston pushes us to look for meaning in this tale, overtly so, and then Norton is the playwright struggling to construct and working out what to voice. And then, in Asteroid City itself, characters are confronted by the cosmos and react by looking back at themselves.

It is such a deeply human film, COVID inflected also. Of the many ‘clearly a product of lockdown’ films, it is one of the better ones. The story is built around an unparalleled event that leads to quarantine and that changes the way we look at our lives. Yet it is also about how normality persists alongside the extraordinary (which is only aided by the seemingly complex structure which never obstructs). Characters search for meaning due to things being larger than themselves and Anderson, with co-writer Roman Coppola, construct a tale where things are allowed to be bigger than the characters. Things go unexplained and unresolved, potently so. Because the persistence of life in the face of the Sublime is the point here — a quaint cousin to Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2002) which also calls upon the cosmic to address our existential insecurity. Like this film, Asteroid City is beautifully inconclusive. Its message is a refreshing statement about a lack of message, about an instinctual and emotional understanding that matters.

The film is deeply moving, well observed and melancholic, and has grander concepts that it doesn’t try to tie up in under two hours. It lets these things sit, they serve as symbols of the great unknown, the things that resonate beyond rationality. There are scenes in this film that work because they work; they evoke in this effortless way that defies analytical engagement. You know that it means something to you and that it makes you feel something, and that is the importance. It is about human connections and how they drive us, and about how the more things change the more they stay the same. And it is funny, and beautiful and wonderfully fragile. A delicate thing, but such is life. Asteroid City is Wes Anderson taking on the microcosm. Behind affection, behind the cosmic and behind the life altering is the prosaic persistence of people. They do things and they act in ways we may never quite understand — here science fiction motifs and pulpy narrative arcs are used to front the unexplainable. But that is a kind of meaning: we only really have access to the surface of life outside of ourselves and are left just with presumption. Anderson draws our attention to this while also showing the beauty that is life going on, in spite of it all.


Leave a Reply