For Wes Anderson, even the smallest worlds are intricate, volatile, and melancholic, worthy of our exploration. As a result, the size of a particular universe matters less than the many clues populating its physical and emotional terrain. The tracking shot-heavy opening sequence in Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, further confirms this approach, gliding up, down, and around a 1960s family abode ripe with trinkets. In the whisper of time it takes Robert Yeoman’s camera to float down a lengthy hallway, Anderson introduces the Bishop clan rooted in stasis, with Walt (Bill Murray) and his wife Laura (Frances McDormand) laying about in boredom while their three young sons engage in harmless acts of play. The same cannot be said of their daughter, twelve-year old Suzy (Kara Hayward), who restlessly and actively peers out the window through her binoculars waiting for something, or someone, to whisk her away on an adventure.
Set on New Penzance Island, a beautifully rocky and blustery locale bisected by rivers and tree lines, Moonrise Kingdom follows Suzy as she escapes her stifling home front with pen pal and experienced Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman). The two children explore the woods, build campfires, and get to know each other on their own terms. Their disappearance not only sends the local townspeople into search party mode, it casts a light on specific secrets and insecurities concerning the local police chief (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s Khaki Scout Leader (Edward Norton). If this ripple effect proves anything, it’s that the adult world cannot be trusted until it proves itself worthy of a child’s respect and admiration. In this sense, Suzy and Sam’s flight is an act of protest against a community that has no place for their complexity, no empathy for their angst.
While it certainly echoes the director’s previous work, Moonrise Kingdom represents Anderson’s transition toward a more instinctual way of exploring physical cinematic space. Shot on Super 16mm, Moonrise Kingdom is chock-full of grainy long shots accentuating Sam and Suzy’s elemental call of the wild. A private beach, an open field of green, and a steep cliff face are just some of the beautiful monuments filling Anderson’s zooms and pans with Western spirit. This sensibility directly contrasts with the rigidity created by the Bishop parents or the Khaki Scout institution. These sublime images represent the scream of vibrant youth gasping for air at any cost.
Interestingly, Moonrise Kingdom contains no snazzy pop songs for comfort (Benjamin Britten acts as stand-in), or much in the way of slow motion to crystallize unity (although there is one stunning example late in the film). Instead, Anderson moves away from his stylistic crutches and uses the angles, bends, and dips of nature to redefine his character’s sense of community, a colorful cosmos worthy of being called home.
Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul also riffs on familiar themes in strange new ways with his jazzy 59-minute “documentary,” Mekong Hotel. Basically a series of vignettes where actors/spirits contemplate their own brutality, omniscience, and compassion, this genre hybrid establishes the Mekong river region as a kind of luminescent open-air purgatory for tormented ghosts. The consistent mention of rising floodwaters and the bloody reappearance of a female phantasm called “The Pob Ghost” are fascinating analogies for Weerasethakul’s ongoing examination of spiritual and elemental rebirth.
But it’s the brilliantly lyrical guitar score, which plays over their character’s elliptical conversations about reincarnation, possession, and memory, that lend the many static shots a hypnotic rhythm. No matter how fragmented or incomplete the discussions feel, this juxtaposition between sound and light makes perfect sense for a film devoted to bridging so many grand ideas in such a contained temporal space. Life and death, harmony and chaos, confidence and regret live side-by-side in the musical notes on the wind, and in the symmetry found gliding across the river’s surface in the indelible last shot.
Far more taxing but equally rewarding is Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, the rigorous first entry in a supposed trilogy. Margarete Tiesel turns in a titanic performance as Teresa, an Austrian sex tourist who leaves her catatonic teenage daughter behind to rendezvous with equally horny friends in Kenya. The group of abrasive women intend to sleep with native Africans in order to get their exotic fix, a self-destructive process that becomes a brilliant parallel for the slow death of colonialist self-entitlement. As Teresa cycles through lovers, one more manipulative than the last, she denies the failures of her dalliances despite the absurdity of her approach.
Seidl gives every shot a meticulous sense of balance, making the graphic imagery and scathing subtext all the more disturbing when juxtaposed with the beautiful beach setting. Maybe the best example of this comes when Seidl stacks a group of Kenyan vendors on one side of a divider rope that faces a long line of Europeans permanently beached on lawn chairs. Teresa’s misguided search for love, companionship, and appreciation is a byproduct of this type of collective cluelessness, not only to the social and cultural experiences of others, but to one’s own delusions of grandeur.