This second short in a series of four Roald Dahl adaptations from Wes Anderson is a reminder that there is a darker side to the creative output of both artists. Both are known for eccentricity, whimsy and a dryness but both can take on sobering and harsh topics, and very well. It is a part of Anderson’s filmography that is perhaps out of practice, though the stark and sobering nature of The Swan does harken back to earlier works. Tonally, though not thematically, one could link it to a sequence in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and to parts of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and even Bottle Rocket (1996). The point being, the pseudo miserabilism of this short is not unprecedented. Though, here it is sustained.
It is tempting to see this as Anderson’s The White Ribbon (2009), a simplified and paired down version that still deals with decaying social values and growing psychopathy but that lacks the nuance of the Haneke work. Of course, it is not going for that. It is worth noting, however, that this does show the emotive versatility of Anderson’s style. This is a monologue, the story told to us like with the previous short. It is a show of how minimalism and maximalism can co-exist, as this is full of flourishes yet operates within a precise, stripped back style. It is both lavish and Spartan, a persistent camera moving in cardinal directions, or in whip pans, adding a constrained sense that matches the narrative.
The story is a harsh one. A young boy is bullied, tortured really. Two older boys, with guns, first tie him to the rail tracks (supposing he will die, though not really caring) and then find another — swan related — way to inflict harm. This casual psychopathy does speak to something about the human condition and is very Michael Haneke, Anderson’s craft helps here. The colour scheme is precise, stripped back to cold hues. One fabulous shot has an off-white background that a character stands in front of before spreading a pair of wings (cut off wings from a swan that they have been forced to wear). Swans are so often a symbol of elegance and beauty; this shot has the colours of the background closely matched to the feathers at the fore, the wingspan blending in and losing majesty. It all looks anaemic, clinical: drained of any positive connotation. And, while the short continues the style of Henry Sugar (the previous one) of speaking directly to you, here it has a confessional urgency, the feel of a cry for help — or a pessimistic report of suffering.
There is dark humour but it is a dour watch, though one that sits comfortably within the capabilities of all involved. Anderson is often maligned for having one approach, or having a limiting style; here, the core nouns and verbs of his filmmaking are placed in a different syntax. The feel is not alien or incongruous, the impression is of new phrases through a known language, a reminder that (in a best case scenario) intention drives craft rather than craft deciding intention. The starkness of this tale really won’t be for all but it is very well realised, and feels more wedded to the style than in the last outing. The tale is ultimately too slight, the conclusion not overly interesting but not at all bad. At the moment, we know that Anderson is working on a yet untitled feature reported to have a darker tone than usual; this may be a taste of that and it is a promising one.