Likewise, Bill Murray’s title character in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is a transparently absurd personality from the moment he first dons his crimson beanie and holstered Glock, but the brutal death of his best friend, for which he vows revenge, is no less ghastly as a result. Anderson’s protagonists bury their trauma beneath a facade of caricature, and their journeys are defined by how they deal with their grief.
Loss continues to hang over Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch (2021), which is perhaps his most nakedly sentimental work. Opening with the death of a long-serving magazine editor, the film is structured as an episodic obituary for a man, a publication, and an entire industry facing gradual extinction. The name of the fictional French city in which the film is set, Ennui-sur-Blasé, unsubtly signposts this atmosphere of melancholic nostalgia. The colourful characters we’ve come to expect from Anderson are still present, but their eccentricities contribute to a tableau of mid-century journalism as an exciting and noble arena, since lost to time.
Death had an even more explicit presence in an earlier version of the film. The writer and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz tells BBC Culture, “The prologue to The French Dispatch originally ended with Owen Wilson in a graveyard having a picnic near the grave of a young woman, presumably his wife”. It seems there is so much mourning in Anderson’s worlds that he can afford to cut some of it for pacing.
While Anderson is deft in walking the line between farce and tragedy, he occasionally suspends his broadly comedic sensibility for moments of unadulterated horror. When Richie Tenenbaum attempts suicide, the frankness with which it is depicted is sudden and distressing. Equally, the death of Steve Zissou’s son Ned, or the fatal accident during the river crossing in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), deliver an unexpectedly brutal gut punch. These moments of catastrophe enforce a sense of real and terrifying consequence into Anderson’s fantastical worlds.