Wes Anderson: The Texan Director with a Parisian Heart

With The French Dispatch, his new movie landing in U.S. theaters this Friday and in France the following Wednesday, Wes Anderson has offered his greatest homage to France. Filmed in Angoulême and screened at Cannes this summer, the latest saga follows a team of American journalists in France during the 1970s. The theme will not surprise anyone who knows that the director regularly draws inspiration from French culture and cinema. Looking back over his filmography is akin to going on a treasure hunt of references. With that in mind, here is a five-part trip through Wes Anderson’s France!
Wes Anderson. © Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

While his latest movie is set in Paris, it was actually in Angoulême – renamed Ennui-sur-Blasé during production – that Wes Anderson lived and worked for six months in 2019. “We traveled all around France to find a town that could be a neighborhood in Paris such as Ménilmontant, Belleville, or Montmartre,” he said in an interview with regional newspaper La Charente Libre.

The French Dispatch portrays the daily lives of correspondents working for a magazine inspired by the New Yorker. The cast includes the director’s favorite American actors (Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe) and new talents (Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet) alongside iconic French co-stars such as Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Guillaume Gallienne, Cécile de France, Lyna Khoudri, Vincent Macaigne, Damien Bonnard, Denis Ménochet, Hippolyte Girardot, Félix Moati, and Benjamin Lavernhe. The result is a French atmosphere a far cry from the filmmaker’s roots.

To film his latest project, The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson turned his camera to Augoulême, in Western France. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A Boat on the Mediterranean

Anderson is a Texan through and through. Born in Houston in 1969, he grew up in the city before leaving to study philosophy in Austin. While in class, he met a few of his future partners, such as fellow Texan Owen Wilson, with whom he worked on his first projects. However, France and the Mediterranean had always been what he dreamed about, and his hero was none other than Jacques Cousteau. “I was crazy about his stories,” he said in an interview with the AlloCiné website. “He was a scientist, an inventor, and a member of the French Resistance. He was incredibly brave. But what I like the most about him is that he was a fabulous director, a real film star.”

After becoming a director himself, Anderson often paid tribute to Cousteau. In Rushmore, his second feature-length movie, Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) borrows a book by the explorer from his high school library. Later, he celebrated his childhood idol in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, with Bill Murray playing a red knit cap-wearing explorer-director. The character’s boat is even called the Belafonte, inspired by Harry Belafonte, the renowned calypso singer, which was the name of Cousteau’s vessel.

Oceanographer, explorer and Cousteau lookalike Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, center) in The Life Aquatic. © Buena Vista International

On the Silver Screen

Anderson discovered cinema through French movies. In his film class at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 2017, he said: “There’s an old saying among fans of American music, ‘The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.’” As he sees it, the same thing applies to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. “François Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Louis Malle are three of my ten favorite directors.” There would have been no Rushmore without Murmur of the Heart by Malle, and no The Darjeeling Limited without Renoir’s The River.

Martin Scorsese actually invited Anderson to a screening of this latter movie. At the time, the director had an idea for a film with three characters on a train somewhere abroad, but had not yet chosen the location. He left the theater and was walking through the streets of New York when it hit him: Just like The River, his movie would be set in India!

Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody in The Darjeeling Limited. © American Empirical Picture

More recently, while talking to L’Officiel USA about filming The French Dispatch, French actress Lyna Khoudri said that Anderson had brought piles of DVDs to the lobby of the hotel where the cast was staying. “Have you seen A Day in the Country by Renoir?” the director asked her. “No,” she replied, before returning to her room to watch it. As for Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord, “the movie was the reference for my role,” she says. “Especially the character played by Pascale Ogier.”

Much like Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, Anderson’s characters regularly skip class. And in both Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, audiences will recognize the love triangle from Jules and Jim. But the American director’s references are also drawn from figures such as Maurice Pialat – he cites L’Enfance nue as the main influence for Moonrise Kingdom – and, of course, Jacques Demy for his renowned slow-motion shots.

On the Record Player

Beyond cinema, Anderson is also a connoisseur of French music and features it in his movies. A song by Françoise Hardy plays halfway through Moonrise Kingdom, although the singer was less than happy: “My first albums were terrible, so I’m hardly pleased when Wes Anderson uses them.” However, it is hard to think about the film without picturing the two children, Sam and Suzy, delightedly dancing on the beach to “Le temps de l’amour.” According to Anderson, he sometimes comes up with ideas for scenes while listening to music. This was the case with Moonrise Kingdom, which offers an homage to the most intellectual of the 1960s French music stars.

Aside from François Hardy, many other singers have been the target of Anderson’s admiration. The soundtrack to The Darjeeling Limited would not be complete without British singer Peter Sarstedt’s hit “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” also used in Hotel Chevalier, a short film that acted as a prologue to the subsequent feature-length movie. The song describes the daily life of a Parisian woman who dances like Zizi Jeanmaire, wears Balmain, lives near the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Sorbonne, spends her summers in Juan-les-Pins, winters in St. Moritz, and sips Napoleon brandy. The movie ends with Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Elysées,” while in Rushmore, Max plays a cassette tape of Yves Montand’s “Rue Saint-Vincent” in the hope that the French singer will help him win over the woman he loves.

Last but not least, Anderson’s ties to French music also include film composer Alexandre Desplat. “I really liked his music in Birth,” said Anderson at the Cinémathèque. “But it was after learning that we were neighbors in Montparnasse that I told myself we simply had to work together.” The pair have since collaborated on five movies including The Grand Budapest Hotel, which saw Desplat win an Oscar in 2015. “Alexandre loves to play,” added Anderson, and “he has a vast musical knowledge.” Meanwhile, the French composer is quick to sing the praises of his cinematic companion: “His films offer such an unpredictable musical world.” Desplat and Anderson teamed up once again for the soundtrack of The French Dispatch.

Photo Frame

Anderson’s meticulously structured, symmetrical shots are much like photographs. And once again, French culture is omnipresent. In The Life Aquatic, the director chose a self-portrait by photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue as the inspiration for Lord Mandrake, Steve Zissou’s mentor. Keen-eyed viewers will recognize him posing in front of the Mediterranean surrounded by stone pines.

Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photographs and their original subjects are regular guests in Anderson’s work. In Rushmore, the filmmaker copied his photos to create certain shots, such as the scene with Max sporting a (very French) red beret sitting in a child’s toy car wearing aviator goggles. And in The Life Aquatic, Lartigue’s influence is found in the name of the main character. “I never knew that Zissou was also the name of a soccer player!” says Anderson. “Jacques Henri Lartigue had a brother, and that was his nickname. He was often in the photos. He would do lots of stunts; he was a real daredevil and I wanted to pay tribute to him.”

Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, and Tilda Swinton in The French Dispatch. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A Pied-à-Terre in Montparnasse

“When I’m in Paris, I still feel like I’m an American abroad,” said Anderson in an interview with Time Out. “I don’t feel like I’ve assimilated to [the] culture, and my French is no better than it ever was.” The director bought an apartment in the Montparnasse neighborhood a few years ago, and he can sometimes be spotted at cinemas on the Left Bank – Le Panthéon, Le Champo, L’Arlequin, and the theater on Rue Christine – and in the Bercy neighborhood, where he regularly visits the Cinémathèque. While dining in the brasseries of Montparnasse, he enjoys everything but foie gras: “People in France eat rather extreme things. I try to stay away from all that.”

Paris is everywhere in his movies. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) flirts in a hotel room with the Eiffel Tower reflected in the window. The same monument is scribbled on Max Fischer’s books in the opening scenes of Rushmore. In the commercial Anderson directed for the Candy perfume by Prada, Léa Seydoux plays an elegant young woman who flits from cinemas to Paris side-streets, unable to choose between two lovers, her Jules and her Jim. Lastly, in Hotel Chevalier, Jason Schwartzman’s character hides away in a room at the Hotel Raphael surrounded by the city’s rooftops. The short film ends on a shot of the French capital’s iconic architecture and a simple question: “You wanna see my view of Paris?”

Article published in the July 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.