Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” Considers the Future by Looking to the Past

The director's ode to the Space Age sees him turning his focus to questions of ambiguous motivation and mysterious inspiration

May 26, 2023 10:21 am
Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in "Asteroid City"
Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in "Asteroid City"
Focus Features

This is the fourth installment of the 2023 edition of the French Dispatches, our on-the-ground coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.

Two years ago, Wes Anderson’s new film gave this series its name; The French Dispatch, as I wrote at the time, is an American film made in tribute to high culture and French culture, which the film treats as more or less the same. But the admiration flows both ways. Cannes loves American star power— the new tradition of flying in a late-career American star to receive an honorary Palme d’Or on opening night, a role filled this year by a rambling Michael Douglas, puts a halo around middlebrow post–Golden Age Hollywood the way that the postwar French critics canonized the great auteurs of the studio system, and earlier this week saw The Weeknd and Sam Levinson arrive with their buzzy HBO series The Idol, which at any rate sounded like a hot steaming mess at the kind of scale that befits the biggest, brashest country. The less star-powered, more adventurous Director’s Fortnight section, which this year was packed full of emergent, intellectual and alternative French auteurs, also included American debut features like Sean Price Williams’s The Sweet East and Weston Razooli’s Riddle of Fire. The former is a blown-raspberry road movie following a teen girl’s picaresque journey through a cross-section of dirtbag subcultures; the latter is a magic adventure quest featuring paintball gun–wielding preteen kids on dirtbikes. Both shot on dreamy, grainy celluloid, the films are suggestive of an America — vigorous, cocky, innocent — that appeals to a jaded European intelligentsia. In The Sweet East, the character played by Simon Rex observes that Europeans are always calling America a “young country” — he thinks it’s condescending, and maybe it is, but here in Cannes it also reflects a boundless appetite for a country and culture perceived as a renewable energy source.

And of course there’s Wes Anderson, whose films amass an ever greater wattage of star power to fuel the red carpet here, and whose Asteroid City taps into the expansive, optimistic mindset of one of America’s youngest ages, the early to mid 1950s, the Space Age and the first decade of the Eisenhower interstate highway system. Anderson in his films is so precise, so obsessively referential in his tributes to the culture of the past, and so often concerned with grief and the impossible dream of family reunification. Asteroid City is these things as well, but it’s also about the future, or at least the imagination of it.

“Asteroid City” is somewhere out in the desert southwest, little more than a motel, a luncheonette and a roadside attraction — a meteor impact crater. But for the duration of the film it is filled with people in town for the Junior Stargazers Convention, a festival of teenage STEM whizzes under the aegis of the military-industrial complex. But the convention goes on longer than expected after a mysterious close encounter, and this stopover in the middle of nowhere becomes a hive of activity — a new American outpost not so dissimilar to the one in Killers of the Flower Moon. Anderson does love a model village.

Here, too, domestic arrangements are frayed. Since Rushmore Anderson has given his characters dead parents and spouses — the way he does it it’s a literary affliction, like in Dickens, halting their aging and freezing them in a tableaux of grief. Here, Jason Schwartzman — who played Anderson’s first major motherless child, Rushmore’s Max Fischer — is a long way from home, as Augie, the patriarch of the Steenbeck family, who pull into Asteroid City in a wood-paneled station wagon, with a Tupperware full of ashes. Augie begins to thaw by running lines with the movie star in the next motel cabin, played by Scarlett Johansson; the dialogue exchanges between the two are a rare moment when the narrative lingers and the actors hold the screen and explore the alienation that is the story’s ostensible emotional tone. The frame is otherwise teeming with scientists, generals, schoolbuses full of children, country-club types, den mothers, and cowboys the kind kids in the 1950s would have seen on television.

The time frame allows Anderson to riff on atomic-age paranoia, on Robert Frank’s open-road photography collection The Americans, and an unprecedented time of material indulgence for children, the child-centered prosperity of the post-WWII baby-boom years, when the peacetime war machine turned to suppling consumer society with new Davy Crockett hats and chemistry sets. Anderson, always fascinated by the ingenuity of children, plunks his Junior Stargazers down in a moment when the fate of a world being remade in real-time was thought to hinge on their continued precocity, like if the Tenenbaums had been expected to get us to the moon before the Russians.

That’s a melancholy prospect, as ever in Anderson, though it can be frustratingly hard in Asteroid City to see the core of sadness that his characters often cover up with their relentless, elaborate tinkering and world-building. He conceals it too well. The widescreen frame is full of jokes and production-design detail, impossible to parse in one sitting, though the broader strokes are beautiful. An animatronic road runner hops along a pan-play orange desert against a painted-blue sky. Asteroid City is, in fact, very obviously a stage set, a single location whose background is dotted with forced-perspective miniature sandstone rock formations and illuminated by overhead light; the drama is interrupted by title cards, in the style of a theatrical program, breaking the film into three acts and numerous scenes.

Asteroid City, with its anxiety about alien invasion, an obvious metaphor for the red-under-the-bed suspicions of the period, could be a tolerance allegory in the style of socially conscious 1950s drama; the dialogue, like in the types of plays written to showcase graduates of the Actors Studio, is lyrical, pointedly repetitive at times, and psychological. Through Johansson’s character, and in other ways, including some broken fourth walls and narrative devices I don’t want to go into too much here, Anderson explores the ideas about acting and drama that were being explored in the 1950s, as the inner space of the subconscious was being probed the same as outer space by Method Actors and their coaches. Following the elaborate frame stories of French Dispatch, this is Anderson turning his attention to the intellectual and aesthetic movements that inform different types of storytelling. Actors are inventors, Anderson says, just like his little STEM geniuses with the ray-guns and jetpacks.

By focusing on acting in particular, with its emphasis on spontaneity and discovery, Anderson is making a rare foray into the unconscious, which is perhaps not so different from what the Junior Stargazers are doing when they look up into the endless void overhead (or what Augie is doing when he looks down at the Tupperware holding his wife’s ashes). His films are so referential (everyone is named after something) and so controlled (every wall is covered with sight gags). It’s interesting to see Anderson turn his focus to questions of ambiguous motivation and mysterious inspiration, to actors and children and aliens, to the imagination of tomorrow.

Speaking of imagining tomorrow, as the festival approaches its conclusion this weekend, I reiterate that it is extremely stupid and foolish for awards prognosticators to think they have any idea about the tastes of nine strangers. It’s tempting to make guesses about which juror will like what, but just because I know what kind of movies Ruben Östlund and Julia Ducournau make, that doesn’t mean I know what kind of movies they like, or whether they think that a movie that reminds me of their work was in any way successful. The president of the jury that gave the Palme d’Or to Pulp Fiction was Clint Eastwood. (Or maybe he was influenced by jurors such as Catherine Deneuve or Kazuo Ishiguro?) 

Nevertheless I thought of both Ruben Östlund’s arch social commentary and Julia Ducournau’s adolescent body trauma during the most-hated film in competition, Jessica Hausner’s Club Zero. A brilliant if sometimes intellectually impatient filmmaker, Hausner returns to Cannes with her first film since Little Joe, a film about a bioengineered plant that served as a metaphor for many things, from antidepressants to consumer culture, but eventually seemed to stand in for the self-replicating logic of life itself. In Club Zero, Goop-y guru Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska, doing just the strangest voice, which stands out even in a movie with a deliberately international cast all speaking stilted English) is hired by an elite boarding school to teach the rich kids (and one scholarship kid) a class on “Conscious Eating.” 

Conscious Eating seems to mean eating as little as possible — if you take the time to realize that you’re already full, you’ll eat less, which is good for the environment, for mindfulness, for health — though what at first seems like an astringent satire of the wellness industry and minimalism-as-consumption, against a backdrop of anxious wealth and teenage body-image issues, becomes a stranger, more metaphysical thing as the kids eat less and less, approaching absolute Zero. 

Club Zero is a film about the ideological purity of the young; about self-loathing; about spiritual transcendence through self-denial, filling yourself by emptying yourself. Screening with a trigger warning, and featuring several scenes of bulimia including one very disgusting moment played for obscure metaphor, the film wields very real, very bodily issues very conceptually, in a quite arch style that’s all hard-edged rich spaces, robotic dialogue and factory-fresh bright colors. Thematically ambiguous and formally cold, plausibly offensive and certainly callous, it’s an easy enough film to admire but a harder one to like and an impossible one to recommend.

At the other end of the spectrum entirely is The Pot-Au-Feu, a film which is really and truly about conscious eating. Opening with a roughly 30-minute sequence about the preparation and consumption of a meal, from picking vegetables in the garden by early-morning light, to scurrying around the kitchen, to reducing sauces to carving the vol-au-vent to between-course pontifications to deboning the turbot to wine pairings to cigars in the salon, it’s simply, extravagantly luxuriant. The single-camera montage is remarkably staged (continuity over multiple takes is notoriously difficult in food scenes, since multiple versions of a dish are often required and the continuity must reflect the cooking of several courses simultaneously), and French cinema royalty Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel know their way around a 19th century kitchen almost as well as their characters do. 

The film is inspired by a 19th century French novel about a gourmand and his cook, also the love of his life; the French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung gives the film the look of a beautiful East Asian long-take film from the 1990s — arthouse gods like Hou Hsiao-hsien always gravitated towards cooking and eating as a way to demonstrate the bustle, presence, lapsed time, intrapersonal dynamics and physical experience of family and romantic life — with fluid long takes, horizontal light streaming through the windows into the kitchen, luscious greens to be lovingly washed, birdsong foley effects on the audio track. But the film is stripped of any friction whatsoever, with such minimal drama as there is on the surface. There are nominal ideas about scientific and industrial revolutions, in brief discussions about Escoffier’s brigade and the new hotel industry; and a theme of feminism, independence, and equal relations between the sexes, in the way Binoche’s character resists her ardent and admiring lover’s offers of marriage — but for the most part this is a purely celebratory film about watching gorgeous, labored-over French food come out of a wood-fired, cast-iron oven. It’s a pure pleasure. (At one point, watching Magimel stuff a hen with truffles, the friend sitting next to me groaned, “This is so incredibly sexual.”) 

There is something to this — the film honors sensuality in the present tense, which is a philosophy, albeit one that at times comes close to that of Ratatouille in its patriotic and straightforward veneration of French gastronomy and its relation to self and memory. Food is love, and all that. I wouldn’t say Pot-Au-Feu is good, exactly, but your mom probably still loves Babette’s Feast, so expect to hear a lot more about this one; and I do wish the festival had screened the movie earlier, so my friends and I could have had more time to meme the shit out of it before they started going home.

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