Features and Columns · Movies

The Aesthetics of Class in the Films of Wes Anderson

You know what they say: the views are better (and lonlier) above ground.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Buena Vista Pictures
By  · Published on September 10th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on what the films of Wes Anderson can teach us about the intersection of class and aesthetics.

It’s safe to say that if you clicked on this article, you are keenly aware of what a Wes Anderson film looks like. They’re colorful, presentational, and absolutely teeming with whip-pans and montages. That said, discussions about why Anderson’s films look the way they do (and, perhaps more interestingly, when they don’t) are few and far between. This is a shame because, while there’s nothing wrong with style for style’s sake, treating Anderson’s aesthetic as a choice unlocks critical thematic throughlines.

One thematic thread well-worth tugging on is Anderson’s shifting presentation of economic class. As the video essay below convincingly argues, the earlier half of Anderson’s career pointedly centers on affluent characters, from extracurricular prep school kings (Rushmore) to quirky globe-trotting fail-sons (The Darjeeling Limited). Of this era, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps the most pointed example of how Anderson weaponizes his aesthetic to comment on the wealthy. The film tells of an eccentric upper-class family who has drifted apart in the wake of a series of failures, betrayals, and heartbreaks. When the family’s controlling patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman) returns to heal old wounds, an unexpected reunion takes place.

The Royal Tenenbaums’ cold, arms-length style underlines the emotional gulf between the Tenenbaums themselves. Characters share rooms, but rarely share frames. They stand at a distance from the camera; as pushed away from us as they are from each other. The film’s look is pointedly staged and choreographed; a farcical echo of the way Royal attempted to puppeteer the lives of his own children.

As the video essay argues, comparing The Royal Tenenbaums to Anderson’s 2009 film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, highlights a critical distinction in how Anderson uses his distinct aesthetic for class commentary. Both The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox tell of ego-blinded patriarchs coming to terms with their lots in life. But, crucially, the former tells the story of a lower-/middle-class family. Despite being more stylized than any of his prior films by virtue of being stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox is brimming with frenetic energy. Fur rustles, characters interrupt one another, and everything moves and vibrates. So if you’ve ever wondered what purpose Wes Anderson’s aesthetic plays both in individual films and within his wider filmography, this essay is a marvelous (fantastic, even) place to start.

Watch “WES ANDERSON, CLASS & AESTHETIC: The Royal Tenenbaums & Fantastic Mr. Fox”:

Who made this?

This video on how class and aesthetics intersect in the work of Wes Anderson is by Maggie Mae Fish, a Los Angeles-based comedian, actress, and culture critic who releases short films and video essays on her YouTube account. Fish has been featured on College Humor, Screen Junkies, and JASH. She was also a former lead actor and writer at Cracked.com. You can follow Fish on Twitter here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.