At the beginning of the press conference for Moonrise Kingdom, the moderator announced that director Wes Anderson could answer questions in either French or English.
And sure enough, after the first half-dozen questions, a French journalist rose and asked him to answer her in French so she could judge his accent. Her question – a long one – was about whether he would agree that genius is akin to retaining the childlike spark in ourselves. Anderson looked puzzled. Then the moderator started translating for him.
At which point Anderson acknowledged that he didn't actually speak French, at least not well enough to understand the question.
It seemed like the kind of behaviour you might see in one of Anderson's films, a character making a bold claim, then sheepishly backing out. But the French journalist was onto something else: Anderson, who turned 43 early this month, is lanky, with longish hair and a slight stammer – a perpetual youth. (Talking about Moonrise Kingdom, he sounded less confident at times than the two self-possessed child actors – Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – who star in his film.)
Although he graduated with a philosophy degree from the University of Texas and routinely cites sophisticated directors such as Satyajit Ray and Luis Bunuel as influences, Anderson's films have a child-like quality, from their use of primary colours to the almost obsessively ordered quality of the cinematography. He's worked with the same cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, since his first film Bottle Rocket (1996), and his symmetrically framed medium-shot style is widely copied. Napoleon Dynamite, for one, couldn't exist without Wes Anderson.
This time, Anderson tells the story of two runaway children, Sam and Suzy, escaping from an unhappy adult world. Moonrise Kingdom begins with a tour of Suzy's home, shown one room at a time, like a tour of a perfectly detailed doll house (part of the inspiration for the movie was Anderson's adolescent performance in Noye's Fludde, a medieval version of the Noah's ark story set to music by Benjamin Britten).
Suzy has discovered a booklet called "Coping with the Very Troubled Child." Anderson saw the same one on his own parents' refrigerator, and knew, he says, that it was intended for him, not his brothers. Was Moonrise Kingdom autobiographical, then?
"It was my memory of what I wanted to happen, not anything that actually occurred," Anderson said (in English).
Part of Anderson's method, unusual among contemporary directors, is to work with the same crew and favourite actors from film to film (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, although Wilson is missing from this one). That's why he describes each of his films as "reunions." In this case, there were some high-profile newcomers to the party: Ed Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban.
Each of them talked about how Anderson sets a particular tone on the set: "He makes a magical world in the film and a magical world around making the film" said Balaban.
Norton compared Anderson to his own character in the film, a conscientious scout leader "marching us through our skills and heading off on an adventure."
For actors used to being left to their own devices, the sense of detail is a bonus. Said Willis: "I found it really refreshing to be directed, to perform the part in the really specific way that Wes saw the character. In a lot of films, you don't really rehearse, and nobody talks to you about it."
Swinton, who plays a bureaucrat simply called Social Services in the film, put her experience in more ornate terms, comparing the experience in turn to a camping trip, a wedding and an adventure.
That left it to Anderson regular Murray, garbed in a brightly checked sports jacket, to puncture the love balloon – though just a little.
"I don't really get any other work except through Wes. I just sit by the phone," he said.
"But the making of these films is more of a fun adventure all the time ... Tilda's just a monstrous actress, and it's so much fun to have her in there. And Bruce is a serious crazy movie star. For him to play the cop in a one-car town really paid off. He really gets the big Die Hard moment at the end. And it wouldn't have worked without him.
"Maybe they could have got the Muscles from Brussels [Jean-Claude Van Damme]but it wouldn't have been the same."
Murray, also a favourite of director Jim Jarmusch, says return engagements with a director are flattering.
"Often, when you're working with a director, you'll never see them again. Sometimes you hope you'll never see them again. And sometimes the director feels the same way. They don't wait for you to leave. Sometimes they drive you to the airport to make sure you leave. Wes has never given me a drive to the airport."
And, for the benefit of the collected press at the Cannes film festival, Murray also took a moment to explain what art cinema is all about.
"These are what they call 'art films.' I don't know if you know what those are. They're films where you work very, very long hours for no money. All we get is this trip to Cannes. No money involved. We wear our own clothes. No rentals. But fortunately we've saved money from other jobs so we can afford to work with Wes over and over."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that Anderson's most successful film in recent years was a straight-up children's film – a screen version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox – that adults could also enjoy. The boy-men of The Darjeeling Limited, or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, fell between the cracks: too arch to be either exactly funny or emotional.
Moonrise Kingdom, set in the world of 12-year-olds, doesn't bridge the gap but makes it more stark: It's simultaneously painfully sincere and highly arch.
"As a fan of Wes's, I feel that his adults are always kind of wrangling disappointment," said Swinton. "And in this film, even more than the other ones, the parents are the disappointed ones, and the children have got the Grail."
Cannes: First Impressions
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward
Idiosyncratic, even by Wes Anderson's standards, Moonrise Kingdom is a story of (very) young love, as two lonely 12-year-olds – foster child Sam and depressive, ignored sibling Suzy (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) – make a pact to run away together. Though since they live on an island off the coast of Rhode Island, their escape options are limited.
Set in 1965, the film is set-designed down to the minutest detail, with strong primary colours and carefully framed images making life on the island look like pages from a children's storybook. When the children disappear, the adults – including Suzy's unhappily married lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the local scout leader (Ed Norton) and the island's schlubby cop (Bruce Willis) – start a frantic search. They're accompanied by a scout troop, who act as if they're on a search-and-destroy mission. Complicating matters is the arrival of a social worker, simply known as Social Services, played by Tilda Swinton in eccentric high-fashion garb.
Although the central young love story has a slightly uncomfortable charm, the movie's dominant impression is one of painstaking artifice for its own sake: a series of tableaux of Sixties family life, set to a carefully chosen music score, ranging from Benjamin Britten to Hank Williams.