Wes Anderson recently quipped at the Venice Film Festival that he was a more confident filmmaker in the days of Bottle Rocket. Surely, the comment was made slightly in jest, but it is interesting to see him make that remark at a time when his films are increasingly self-reflexive, interrogating his own style and point of view in a manner that makes his films appear more self-conscious, but interestingly and artistically so.
Asteroid City, in particular, is a fascinating self-exploration. Its Russian nesting doll structure tackles so many ideas; the film will probably become one of the more obsessed-over Anderson films in the years to come as it seems to reveal more with each moment of consideration. I’m enthralled by how the film analyzes auteur theory, or at least Anderson’s relationship to it. Wes, of course, is one of our most recognizable filmmakers. But the film, at least in part, is preoccupied with how the artistic source can only take you so far, and how ultimately a creative work is up to the interpretation of those who work on it and what they bring into it. (A fitting double feature with Bottle Rocket considering how much Wes praises Owen Wilson for being such an integral creative partner on it.)
Anderson’s new short, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, continues this conversation at an accelerated pace, this time shifting the lens from actor/worker interpretation to literary adaptation. It’s both the most faithful recreation of Roald Dahl’s short story that you could ask for and something entirely of Anderson’s own creation.
Hilariously, the short begins with Ralph Fiennes as Roald Dahl mumbling about his artistic process — his need for cigarettes and chocolate at his writing station — until he breaks for a second, stares directly into the camera, and begins rattling off the words of the short film at a breakneck pace. Then, as if this were a play where scene changes could occur in an instant, Dahl’s studio shifts and opens up to Henry Sugar (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a fantastic addition to the Anderson acting troupe).
On a bookshelf, he discovers a doctor’s report on Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), a man who could apparently see without his eyes. From there, it becomes a story within a story within another story, as the doctor (Dev Patel) learns about Khan’s abilities. Add on another level from there, as Khan takes over for an extended period to narrate his life. Ultimately, Henry Sugar wants to use this skill to become unfathomably wealthy through gambling.
There’s a special kind of exhilaration in watching Anderson fly between dollhouse sets created by production designer Adam Stockhausen. The walls lift away on wires, and the actors often remark on their artificiality. Cumberbatch’s mildly curious line reading of “interesting” as a backdrop changes behind him is pure gold. Much of Dahl’s words are untouched, down to each “I said.” Dev Patel is clearly having a blast with this bit, humorously switching between being present in the scene and breaking the fourth wall to utter his next “I said.” I wonder if he struggled with any bits of whiplash from how quickly he turned his head to do so.
The artificiality serves many story purposes at once. It nicely mirrors Sugar’s hollow existence, while also heightening the perceived hollowness of Khan’s gifts. Personally, it also helps to blunt the short’s sweet message, which could have dipped into schmaltzy territory if adapted more traditionally. As with Asteroid City, it’s also a blend of the stage and the big screen, at once calling attention to its own seams and taking time to appreciate them. It speaks to a shared artistic vision, one where all of its influences — from Dahl to Anderson to everyone else on set — deserve the spotlight, if only for 41 minutes.
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