Significantly the only film of Wes Anderson's I've managed to enjoy is the atypical The Fantastic Mr Fox, where the choice of medium (animation) seemed perfectly suited to his heightened anti-realist aesthetic.
On his next film, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom (top image) Anderson was back to cartoon figures represented by flesh and blood actors, his characteristic whimsy not so much applied as pushed in the viewer's face.
|Melies: A Journey to the Moon|
Every second we're watching a Wes Anderson film, we're acutely aware we are not in the real world but the film world - more specifically, a film world of his own imagining. Nothing wrong with that, at least in principle. The title, Moonrise Kingdom, suggests an alternate reality, and Anderson uses a number of techniques to continually jolt the viewer into recognition of the story's fantastical and artificial nature. One of the most immediately obvious is the use of saturated colours, with most scenes saturated in a yellow-ish hue. The second is Anderson's fetish for symmetrical framing, where the subject is placed in the centre of the frame and the elements on either side generally match.
Symmetrical framing has its uses - just so long as it isn't over-used. A composition where the subject is framed dead centre can often be startling, though it depends on the context, including the nature of the shot we've seen immediately before.
A series of symmetrical shots will look progressively mannered simply because its so unusual in filmmaking (the rule of thirds, usually Lesson One in any Composition 101 course, explains that subjects placed dead centre of the frame tend to look flat, static and undynamic).
There are, though, always exceptions to the rule. The first two Moonrise shots below have a powerful effect, the first because its captures a key emotional moment where the two protagonists - young runaways trying to escape a search party - come together. It's a charming and touching moment in a film where the characters are often hard to warm to because they're paraded as if puppets, depthless impersonations of human beings. The simple, clean composition shuts out all the hub-bub of the chase plot and concentrates our attention solely on this emotional moment. And, of course, the image is not strictly symmetrical, with the female on the left, the male on the right, and the image almost conforms to the rule of thirds (a third water , a larger third of the two kissers, and a final third of water again).
The extreme close up of actor Kara Hayward's face directly below has a startling closeness reminiscent of some of the images seen in Jane Campion's early short films (image three below is from Campion's A Girl's Own Story). What really grabs attention, though, is the way Hayward gazes into the camera lens, as if directly fixing the viewer in her gaze.
However in the shot below of the boy scout (Jared Gilman) standing on the rock, the symmetrical framing conforms to the classic flatness that artists have long been advised to avoid. The image is too perfectly balanced, too architectural, to convey any sense of energy. The sole function of this framing choice seems to be to remind us yet again that we are watching a Wes Anderson film.
Some of the other shots below have an individual attractiveness that demands attention. Obviously they have been planned with immense care. The trouble is, however, that these are not occasional shots that spring out of nowhere to demand our admiration, but form part of an overload of symmetry. The device is so heavily abused that it becomes mannered, an effect that to my eyes becomes unbearable when Anderson cuts from one symmetrical image to another.
In essence, the technique is anti-dramatic, since it suggest a world of order, contradicting the dramatic plot in which an unconventional young boy and girl try to escape the adult world.
At least the hut is assymetrical....
The rule of four quarters? Flat, boring.
Stanley Kubrick was noted for using his use of symmetrical compositions, but generally these were designed for an exrpessive purpose. Allison Janes, writing on the blog fearful symmetry - symmetry and architecture in film, notes that "symmetrical scenes are kept to a minimal in A Clockwork Orange. Instead the composition of the scenes are often a chaotic mix of close ups, asymmetrical framing techniques and rapid camera movement. Kubrick uses these filming techniques to convey the madness and insanity of the characters and the society. However, Kubrick employs the use of symmetrically framed scenes to imply the shift from a balanced environment to one of chaos.
"The opening scene of A Clockwork Orange instantly suggests Kubrick’s contrast between symmetry to asymmetry to describe Alex’s madness and deviant behaviour. The scene is shot straight on, Alex at the centre. The viewer immediately perceives the perfect symmetry of his face and body. However, Alex has altered the natural balance, placing black eyelashes on his right eye only. The viewer is immediately aware that Alex is not normal and is disturbed by the variation.
"Kubrick also uses symmetry to introduce feelings of calm into a scene. The harmony implied by the symmetrical composition is quickly altered by Alex’s introduction into the scene. Examples of this contrast are seen before Alex breaches the writer’s house. The wife is doubled in the mirror. The ensuing rape scene is composed chaotically with rapid motion and asymetrical framing, contrasting the balance of the initial shots."