The manner in which Wes Anderson begins his films can tell us a great deal about his overall style, and his influences, and the elements separate from cinema that he draws from to create his signature aesthetic.

Whether this be the velvet curtain rising at the beginning of Rushmore (Fig i) – which frames the entire narrative as a hyper-aware stage play – or the turning pages of the Tenenbaum family history book (fig ii), Anderson introduces us to the worlds of his films with cinematic devices that, when explored, go some way to justify and explain his idiosyncratic visual style.

These framing devices, in these specific cases drawn from the mediums of theatre and literature respectively, create a world immediately separate from our own, and add a layer of direct fabrication to already eccentric stories. Throughout the entirety of his filmography, Anderson visually states that none of what you see is bound to reality, and places between his audience and his films the concept of interpretation.

His most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, channels the narrative through the distant memories of its aging protagonist, whilst the first thing we see in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is grainy footage of the eponymous oceanographer shot by someone else, as the man himself watches on from the comfort of a cinema seat. Though fleeting, these containment devices allow Anderson to, from that point on, explore themes, characters and ideas entirely free from the constraints of a hard-line reality.

In essence: Before each story reaches us, it must pass through something else first. Be this the filter of a book, a play, or a memory, each of Anderson’s films play out like a game of Chinese whispers, as if the narrative has been told before, and his film is simply recounting it to us, complete with all the added details and exaggerations that emerge from subjective interpretation.

Fig i: The curtain parting at the beginning of Rushmore (1998).

Fig ii: The fictitious novel ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ from which the film is drawn.

Re-released on DVD as part of Criterion’s October slate, The Royal Tenenbaums – Anderson’s seventh feature in the collection – contains perhaps the most effective introduction to this technique.

His first to explore an ensemble cast as opposed to a few choice characters, the film unfolds within the framing devices of a book, a narrator, and the memories of the Tenenbaum family, setting all the emotional intricacies of our own reality, and what we know about familial relationships, against a backdrop of visuals, tones and textures gathered from the process of interpretation.

When reading a book, each of us generates an infinite amount of variable images, all born from a single unchanging description. So by framing The Royal Tenenbaums as a filmed interpretation of fictitious source material, Anderson is able to add his own eccentric details, because his filmic interpretation is developed through a subjective understanding of the source. Consider that, the first thing we see is a pair of hands reaching towards ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ book, with the sleeves of a yellow-ish tweed jacket just visible around the wrists: Anderson’s own hands perhaps, complete with his signature pastel-heavy dress-sense (Fig ii). Through this, Anderson establishes that this is strictly his own personal vision, driven by his own tastes and defined by its idiosyncratic nature.

It is never stated within the narration – intended as a straight reading of the book – that Chas and his sons wear matching Adidas tracksuits, or that Margot and Richie’s love for each other is expressed in a yellow tent set up in the living room, but in Anderson’s mind this is how it happens – i.e. his visual style is a result of a personal interpretation, and a comment on the subjective process of consuming art.

Fig iii: Chas and his eerily similar sons.

Fig iv: Margot and Richie Tenenbaum hidden away in Wes Anderson’s camping gear.

A toy-box of tricks and techniques is subsequently utilised to further reinforce this idea of a stylised and strictly individual interpretation. The soundtrack, for example, features a cover of Hey Jude by The Mutato Muzika Orchestra, again demonstrating the process of reworking something to produce new meaning, whilst Margo’s plays, Chas’ businesses and Richie’s tennis career all come as interpretations of what their distant father truly wants from them.

However, the most consistent and important result of the technique developed here is one that has reverberated throughout the rest of Anderson’s career. From this simple method – that is, beginning his films with an assertion that they are personal visions – has emerged a style of filmmaking that has seen the director become one of the most popular crossover filmmakers of a generation.

The symmetry of his composition (Fig v, vi), the ‘quirkiness’ of the tone and the catalogue of filmic tics and tropes that forms the Anderson filmography, have all arguably evolved as a result of his subtly asserting that the events of The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore never claim to have any basis in the reality, and that they are simply retellings or channellings of existing narratives through a creative vessel. The technique simultaneously acts to remind the viewer of their unique position to the story, that of a spectator and a consumer rather than the immersed, active figure that Hollywood intends them to be.

Fig v: Royal Tenenbaum, sat dead centre of frame, the fireplace behind him in balance.

Fig vi: The dining room separated into fractals with each still near-perfectly symmetrical.

Fig vii: Rushmore symmetry, notice how Anderson here places us literally amongst and audience.

Fig viii: Rushmore again reminding the viewer of his place as an audience member.

Toeing the line of postmodernism, Anderson’s positioning of the spectator, and his numerous methods of establishing this position, all combine to create imagery that reflects this, most notably through the aforementioned symmetry of his framing (fig vii). This manner of composition has perhaps become the most integral component of this method of filmmaking, due to the connotations it holds.

You are Anderson’s audience (fig viii), watching his vision unfold on screen and taking your own interpretations from it, just as he has from the plays and books alluded to in his work, and you, as his viewer, just happen to have the best seat in the house – Front and centre.