Colour and mood in Wes Anderson’s films

Megan Harding 19 October 2017

For most filmmakers, colour is an important part of the creative process, but one which will inevitably take a backseat in the final cut of their work. They prioritise scene, setting, dialogue, character, action: all of the aspects of a movie that hit you squarely in the face as soon as you press play. For Wes Anderson, however, building a colour palette is not just foundational work. Over the past twenty years he has become one of the most recognisable auteurs working in the industry today, and is only just reaching the top of his game.

What springs to mind when I mention colour and Wes Anderson? Meticulously symmetrical set designs, for one. Ambitiously euphoric pastel palettes for another. But when watching any of Anderson’s oeuvre, it’s not just these aesthetic signposts I notice, but also the director’s acute sense of relationship between colour and emotion. In fact, colour in Anderson’s work has become almost shorthand for interpreting the themes and feelings of his characters and their circumstance.

Let us look at some of the characters who best embody Anderson’s trademark melancholia and deadpan nihilism: Monsieur Gustave of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, and the entire cast of The Darjeeling Limited. What stands out most is the recurring correlation between emphatically bright colours and the hollow sadness they seem to hint at. For M. Gustave, legendary concierge of The Grand Budapest’s eponymous hotel, life is a long and frivolous party in much the same way as for literary characters like Jay Gatsby. Socialising and bedding increasingly eccentric women is M. Gustave’s replacement for genuine emotional fulfilment, so naturally, Anderson reflects this feigned superficiality with the confectionery pinks that populate Ralph Fiennes’ scenes. Just like he cannot escape the extravagant persona he has created for himself, neither can we avoid garish colour when watching him on screen. This also seems to be the case for Margot Tenenbaum of The Royal Tenenbaums, played with sultry sadness by Gwyneth Paltrow. She too dedicates her time to adventure and sensation, but with less direction and enthusiasm than M. Gustave. As a consequence, she deals not in the breezy pinks and purples of M. Gustave, but in muddy yellows, muted pinks and deep browns. 

This ironic interplay between bright colour and dark emotion can also be traced in The Life Aquatic, one of Anderson’s more controversial films, released in 2004. Though critically it is his weakest-performing, many long-time Anderson fans argue there is a case to be made for the striking melancholia of the film’s failed and irritable main character, Steve Zissou, and the realism of his emotions. Steve doesn’t wear many bright colours, but his signature red beanie becomes symbolic of his disdain for life and suppressed urge to fulfil an ideal of masculinity. Meanwhile, the film itself expresses a ‘dollhouse’-like perfectionism that verges on the cartoonish. How can we relate to the film’s miserable characters when the colours used – a bright yellow submarine, for instance – are so conspicuously juxtaposed? 

Maybe the answer lies with The Darjeeling Limited, a film whose themes are arguably some of the most overtly sad in all of Anderson’s body of work. Three brothers try to make it back in time for their semi-estranged father’s funeral, overcoming multiple barriers along the way and discussing the individual failures that make up their lives. In another director’s hands, these ideas would be painted with a heavy blue-grey brush. Yet for Anderson, yellow serves as a constant in the film’s Indian landscape, its confined spaces, and the character’s clothes to portray their emotional emptiness. Is it an obvious inversion of convention? Most definitely. But is it also effective in demonstrating the ways in which each brother struggles to reconcile themselves with life in its purest forms as it passes them? Certainly. And by the film’s end, these characters’ disconnection from happiness has turned into a hesitant optimism. Maybe the yellow has a slight something to do with it. 

So why exactly does Anderson deal so heavily in bright colour if his themes are inherently melancholic? Perhaps it all comes down to the way the director sees life itself. After all, he never sets out to accurately reflect life when he plans his next endeavour into deadpan comedy and dollhouse visuals. Rather, he creates a microcosm of the human experience that takes place in curious settings, with curious people, doing curiously human things. And as a consequence, a microcosm of humanity also requires a microcosm of colour. When we think of The Grand Budapest, we see pink; when we look at The Royal Tenenbaums, we see sepia yellow. This sends each film out into an orbit of its own, presented more like a vivid memory, boiled down to one colour, than a large canvas. It is this unique and striking use of colour that has helped Wes Anderson carve out a particular niche for himself in a business obsessed with flashy explosions and cheap dialogue, and a reason why the films he makes often surpass pure entertainment, and become works of art.