Walk into one room in the Museum of the City of New York on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and you’ll find magic in miniature. The Stettheimer Dollhouse — a 6-ft.-high, two-story, 12-room edifice that its creator, Carrie Stettheimer, worked on for nearly two decades in the early part of the 20th century — is stocked with period furniture, bric-a-brac, wallpaper and, most impressively, tiny paintings created by Stettheimer’s friends in the art world. Marcel Duchamp contributed a 3-in. version of his Nude Descending a Staircase.
Wes Anderson also builds dollhouses, life-size ones, for the characters in his movies. The first scene of Moonrise Kingdom, which on May 16 opened the 65th Cannes Film Festival, is a left-to-right tracking shot of some rooms on the upper floor of the Bishop house on the New England island of New Penzance in 1965. In one room is Mother (Frances McDormand); in another, Father (Bill Murray), reading a newspaper; in a third, their three young sons at play. Cut to the front of the house, where 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) peers through binoculars into the distance, or the fateful future, to which she hopes to escape.
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Anderson is a fashioner of worlds no less meticulously outfitted than Stettheimer’s. The home in The Royal Tenenbaums is as eccentric as the family that occupies it; the subterranean abode of the feral dandy in Anderson’s stop-motion film Fantastic Mr. Fox is folksy enough to appear in a vulpine House & Garden. The director’s camera style is every bit as obsessively regimented. Shots travel across a straight plane or forward but never diagonally, and reaction shots are calibrated at an exact 180-degree (or, less frequently, 90-degree) angle to the preceding shot. The pictures might be taken by a robo-security apparatus designed by a genius of geometry.
The question Anderson’s dollhouse movies inevitably raise: Does anybody live inside? Sometimes, you bet. In his 1999 breakout comedy Rushmore, a willful life force burns in Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old prep-school dude who loves a pretty teacher. And dapper Mr. Fox, as voiced by George Clooney, applies his wiles with a crafty charisma. But the pleasure in watching an Anderson film is often rarefied, like examining the innards of a Joseph Cornell box. The wayward brothers in The Darjeeling Limited and the oceanographer (Bill Murray) who fancies himself a modern Ahab in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou seem stiff puppets confined by Anderson’s elaborate visual strategy. Their dollhouse is a jailhouse, the camera their stern sentry.
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Part of the considerable appeal of Moonrise Kingdom, written by the director and Roman Coppola (Francis’ son and Schwartzman’s cousin), is its notion that two of Anderson’s dolls want to bust out of his stylistic straitjacket. Suzy, the girl with the binoculars, has a secret assignation with Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), an orphan incarcerated at the Billingsley Foster Family for Boys. They’re kind of soulmates — brainmates, really, for both kids are as bright and restless as Max Fischer and the Tenenbaums’ prodigy children. Suzy reads fiction for advanced girls and listens to Françoise Hardy records; Sam, a member of the local Khaki Scout troop, is an expert woodsman. Most important, they feel the kinship of the imprisoned. They have planned their breakout for almost a year, ever since they met at a school pageant of Benjamin Britten’s community opera Noye’s Fludde at which Suzy was dressed as a raven.
Suzy and Sam are truly venturing into the unknown; they understand what they’re running from but not to. New Penzance is, after all, an island; their escape is largely a metaphorical statement. But being alone together has an innocent thrill. Sam arrives in their designated meadow with a bouquet of wildflowers and later gives her earrings he’s made by attaching insects to fishhooks; Suzy brings her favorite books to read to him. The two also realize that their shared isolation demands an emotional payoff. Precocious intellectually but not sexually, the young lovers must improvise at eroticism. Suzy tells Sam how to French kiss — she probably read it somewhere.
This part of Moonrise Kingdom (the name they give the secret cove where they plan to hide) is a film-noir love story daubed in the sunny tones of late summer on Narragansett. In his Hollywood Reporter review, Todd McCarthy describes the movie’s plot as “They Live by Night with 12-year-olds.” Another late-’40s tale of romantic doom shares this movie’s title: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise, about an older young man (Dane Clark) on the rural run and his love for a more upscale girl (Gail Russell). Gilman and Hayward, both new to the screen, must feel their way to acting as Sam and Suzy grope toward love; the two performers are as naive and winning as the characters are solemn, willful and 12.
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The movie also has adults: Murray and McDormand, Edward Norton as Sam’s Khaki Scout instructor, Bruce Willis as the local sheriff who’s sympathetic to Sam’s plight and Tilda Swinton as the Social Services official (her name in the film is Social Services) determined to put the boy in juvenile detention. But they are no more mature than their charges, incidental both to the agony and ecstasy of love on the cusp of adolescence and to the movie’s mood of serious whimsy.
So cheers for a Cannes director who has infused his technical mastery with radiant life. In the Museum of the World of Wes Anderson, the dolls are dancing.