Criterion Files

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Moonrise Kingdom.

Wes Anderson is known for getting his inspiration from a variety of sources. While Anderson’s signature visual quirks make his films unquestionably his own, the director’s images, themes, and characters also emerge through an amalgamation of materials that inspire him, whether the source be the stories of J.D. Salinger or the pathos of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. But most of Anderson’s references are to other works of cinema, as detailed in this five-part video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, which details Anderson’s particular influence by auteurs ranging from Orson Welles to Hal Ashby. However, certain films anchor their influence more directly than others. For instance, The Life Aquatic was greatly inspired by Federico Fellini’s post-Dolce Vita work, and The Darjeeling Limited is dedicated to celebrated Indian auteur Stayajit Ray.

In the weeks since the Cannes premiere and commercial release of Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, several critics have noted that only does the film seem to be directly influenced by a specific director, but one particular film by that director. Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, whimsically anarchistic couple-on-the-run film from 1965 seems to bear a great deal of similarity to Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place the year that Godard’s film was originally released in France (Pierrot’s US release was delayed until 1969, where it stood curiously opposite Godard’s polemical late-60s work).

Having read several reviews that cite Pierrot‘s influence on Moonrise, I reflected back on both films, and here are some of the narrative and stylistic connections that came to mind…

Couples on the Run

The clearest and most extensive connection between Moonrise Kingdom and Pierrot le Fou is that both films follow young couples who escape from their current life circumstances and share a journey together. Of course, many films track stories of couples on the run, but the aptness for comparison here is the specifics of the couples’ journeys.

In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) leaves behind his foster parents (and, by association, the foster system) and his Khaki Scout troop in order to run away with Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who is escaping her unhappy home life, to a wooded island and set up camp near the shore. Sam and Suzy had met a year before during a church performance of Noye’s Fludde whereafter they became pen pals. The couple briefly resides by the body of water in bliss until their stay is interrupted by outside forces. Sam and Suzy are hunted down by a violent group of scouts, Suzy’s parents, and the local police sheriff. The official crime they have committed is being juvenile runaways, and the unofficial crime they have committed (as evidenced by the reaction of Suzy’s parents upon finding the couple) is engaging in youthful, unorthodox sexual activity.

In Pierrot le Fou, Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) leaves his wife, child, and bourgeois lifestyle behind in order to run away with Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), who is escaping from OAS (Secret Armed Organization) thugs, to travel across France until they reach the Mediterranean shore. Ferdinand knew Marianne previously as his babysitter. The couple briefly resides by the body of water in bliss and boredom until their stay is interrupted by outside forces. Ferdinand and Marianne are chased by the OAS and commit various crimes, including theft and murder, along the way.

Pierrot Le Fou

Pierrot’s events make it seem a far darker film than Moonrise, ending with Ferdinand killing Marianne and her lover before killing himself. However, because of Godard’s propensity for using methods of distanciation to prevent audiences from direct or conventional emotional involvement with his films, Pierrot is remembered more for its slapdash, chaotic comic tone and colorful style than its dark (and occasionally political) themes. While Moonrise has a brown-green-yellow palette in distinction from Pierrot’s French flag color scheme, Anderson’s film is comparably colorful and often similarly whimsical to Pierrot, though Moonrise certainly contains its share of high stakes (the couple’s climactic near-suicide, the death of a dog) and heavy themes (the troubled marriage of Suzy’s parents, Suzy and Sam’s respective emotional disorders).

Moonrise is not a story of young love taken lightly. Pierrot, by contrast, is a story of murder, deception, and paranoia that often takes its subject matter very lightly.

Colorful Faces

Pierrot le Fou famously ends with Ferdinand, in his nadir of despair, painting his face a color that Richard Brody accurately described in Criterion’s accompanying essay as “Yves Klein blue,” then killing himself with dynamite wrapped around his face while standing on the edge of a rocky cliff, but not before regretting his decision immediately before the explosion kills him.

The climax of Moonrise Kingdom initiates with a flood that envelops the island. Sam is chased by a barrage of Khaki Scouts. He stands atop a rock pile and holds a flag in the air, and is quickly struck by lightning. Black soot covers Sam’s face and, when he removes his glasses, two rings circle his pale-flesh eyes, resembling the circles around Ferdinand’s eyes after he paints his face blue.

Later, when Sam and Suzy stand on the steeple during the worst of the storm and contemplate a dangerous jump, the outdoor setting is painted with a blue hue similar to the color associated with Ferdinand’s death. And the danger of excess water which dominates the final act of Moonrise Kingdom seems to resemble the post-whimsy turn to danger characterizing the third act of Pierrot, a tonal 180-degree-shift that is inaugurated with Ferdinand being waterboarded by the OAS.

Marianne and Suzy’s Style

Marianne and Suzy share certain sartorial characteristics that suggest not only a hip mid-60s aesthetic, but also Suzy’s introduction to womanhood. Suzy wears a red dress and blue eyeshadow that strongly resemble Anna Karina’s style in Pierrot le Fou. Both Marianne and Suzy are portrayed as youthful and innocent but at the same time sexually competent. In short, neither character fits within a stereotypical innocent girl v. non-innocent woman dichotomy.

Marianne and Suzy’s Scissors

Both Moonrise Kingdom and Pierrot le Fou feature decisive moments for its female protagonists involving a violent act committed with scissors. In Pierrot le Fou, Marianne kills an OAS member with scissors before she goes on the run with Sam. In Moonrise Kingdom, Suzy stabs a Khaki Scout with scissors as she and Sam attempt the initial part of their escape. In both cases, the act of violence occurs elliptically: we only see the scissor’s beforehand and the aftermath, not what actually occurs. Both scenarios complicate initial impressions of the characters’ youthful innocence.

Ferdinand and Sam’s Rifles

Moonrise Kingdom

Both Ferdinand and Sam carry rifles while on the run. Neither are seen actually shooting anyone with these rifles, but they make up an iconic component of each of their respective appearances; for instance, well known-posters of both Moonrise Kingdom and Pierrot le Fou feature the male characters with their rifles prominently placed.

Miscellaneous Objects

The bevy of objects that Suzy and Sam take with them are reminiscent of the miscellany that accompany Ferdinand and Marianne on their journey. Of particular importance in both cases is the presence of books, and it is in this respect that the genders are reversed: in Pierrot, Ferdinand recites passages from Honoré de Balzac and Louis-Ferdinand Céline; in Moonrise, Suzy reads selections from novels invented by Wes Anderson.

Direct Address

While Anderson often has his characters speak or look directly toward the camera, he rarely uses this technique to allow characters to break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. Moonrise Kingdom, however, features Bob Balaban as a Narrator who is able to interact with the film’s characters, but can also (exclusively) address the audience directly. Direct address has been a component of Godard’s style since Breathless, and he uses direct address repeatedly in Pierrot le Fou. However, it must be qualified that Godard rarely used direct address for straightforward narration like Anderson did for Moonrise, instead favoring the fourth wall break for non-sequiturs or polemics.

Final Thoughts

Some of these connections (e.g., flood/waterboarding) may simply be coincidences or merely surface similarities that arise through the process of seeing one film through the framework of another, but there’s no denying that, at its core, Moonrise Kingdom bears significant similarities to Pierrot le Fou despite notable differences in tone and visual style.

While finding such connections is no doubt a fun exercise for film fans, what’s important about one filmmaker’s invocation of another is not how many worthy citations and references he or she makes to the subject of influencer, but whether or not the imitation of style leads the latter filmmaker to new creative invention and thematic exploration. In the case of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the filmmaker’s amalgamation of influences without doubt function in the service of creating something new, compelling, and unique to the sensibilities of the filmmaker.

(Thanks to Ashley Miller for her help with this article.)

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