The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Opinion | For Wes Anderson, style is substance

There’s something deeply satisfying — and for some, infuriating — about watching a Wes Anderson film. 

For those unfamiliar with the king of deadpan deliveries and Bill Murray collaborations, Wes Anderson is an American film director who is best known for his meticulous and instantly recognisable symmetrical style of camerawork. 

His most famous and acclaimed films include “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” His most recent film, “Asteroid City”, hit theaters this summer to generally positive public reception. 

However, a criticism leveled at Anderson is one that heads opinion columns across the internet every time one of his films is released — style over substance. This phrase has become somewhat synonymous with the filmmaker at this point, but perhaps this is not such a bad thing.

With his desaturated color palette and perfect symmetry, Wes Anderson crafts an exquisite look for each of his films, from the cozy pinks and purples of  “Grand Budapest” to the crisp Autumn orange and yellow of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

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    Some of Anderson’s detractors claim that this strict attention to detail in every meticulously arranged shot leads to his films feeling cold, lacking the certain emotional pull to effectively hook the audience. This claim becomes unfounded when this style is viewed as the very substance some say Anderson lacks.

    Anderson films do feature immaculately arranged shots and gorgeous cinematography, but what many forget is that it is his writing that serves as the undercurrent that allows the more surface level elements, like visual aspects, to flourish. 

    An understated element of Wes Anderson’s films include his endlessly witty dialogue that alternates from a staggered staccato to a flowing legato, depending on the moment. Through his dialogue and his recurring elements like familial difficulties and meditations of grief, Anderon’s films create a much more emotionally affecting experience. 

    Films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited” do feature the usual Anderson visual beauty, but they also delicately explore grief through broken family dynamics with which the stories impact much more profoundly.

    For Wes Anderson, his surface-level symmetry and deep themes inhabit a symbiotic relationship. Neither would be as elevated without the other. 

    Anderson’s balance of theme and style is deceptively agile, allowing for a quick steady pace through the film that typically leads to a gut-punch of an emotional resolution, best seen in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Rushmore.” 

    But this is where the perfect irony lies — these personal choices for most emotional Andersonian conclusions could be rendered inaccurate in another viewer’s mind. What is truly remarkable about Anderson’s filmography is that there is no clearly defined greatest or weakest film in the public eye. 

    Anderson’s films present so many thought-provoking themes, like Man versus Beast in “Mr. Fox” and the lonely life of the journalist in “The French Dispatch”, that every viewers’ experience is unique. 

    Personally, the anthological “French Dispatch” holds a special place in this writer’s heart because of its stylistic approach to telling a story, structuring the film as though it were a journal itself, dividing into separate stories about politics, food and art. 

    But what drives the film home is that its simultaneously stilted and chaotic nature accurately captures the writing process, as well as the lonely life of the creative and the solace one may take in their craft. Though on the surface it may appear style over substance, the “Dispatch” is a prime example of Anderson’s style telling a witty yet thematically intelligent story. 

    Likewise, Anderson’s characters best capture how his style bleeds into the substance he sets on the table for the viewer and how they complement each other. 

    Though Anderson crafts lively visual stimuli, his characters are melancholic, searching for something only obtainable by facing what they ignore. His protagonists often deal with grief or a feeling of displacement and non-belonging, as seen in Murray’s Steve Zissou or the young elopers Sam and Suzy in “Moonrise Kingdom,” who find belonging solely with each other. 

    The deadpan yet earnest delivery Anderson encourages of his actors perfectly blends with the incredible cinematography and color palette, as their words drip with emotional subtext. Watch Ben Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum tell his father that he “had a bad year, dad” near the end of “Tenenbaums,” grab a box of tissues, and watch the claims of style over substance fall apart. 

    Wes Anderson’s style is his substance, driving home complex themes and ideas that could not be communicated through any other medium. Watching his troubled characters find their way through his beautiful and immersive worlds is a joy any movie-goer cannot deny.

    Mr. Anderson knows exactly what he’s doing, and luckily for us, he’s not going to stop any time soon. 


    Aaron is a sophomore in Media.

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    About the Contributor
    Aaron Anastos, Assistant Opinions Editor
    Hello there, my name is Aaron and I’m a sophomore majoring in journalism. I joined The DI as an opinions columnist in fall 2022 and was honored to begin my stint as an assistant opinions editor in spring 2023. I love the opinions section especially because it gathers together so many interesting people with unique perspectives on the world. Outside of the DI offices, you can find me swimming laps at the ARC or happily writing at the Funk Library. You can reach me at my email below!