Asteroid City Is a Cinematic Villanelle

2023-09-08 ☼ blog

In Asteroid City, Wes Anderson imposes layer after layer of artifice between the audience and the characters. The people we observe responding to lockdown in the desert are not real people: they are actors, and we see also those actors preparing for their parts in a black-and-white framing narrative. Our disbelief in this level of the story is disturbed by the metacinematic echoes of our own reality: Midge Campbell, a glamorous Hollywood idol, is also Mercedes Ford, an aspiring Hollywood idol, and Mercedes Ford is also Scarlett Johansson, a glamorous Hollywood idol. And all of it is filtered through Anderson’s trademark style, a style that draws attention to the fact of its construction, from the symmetrical framing through the pastel colours to the flat, affectless delivery. It doesn’t always work. The balance feels off when the film turns its attention to the precocious teenage characters. But the film’s genuine moments of emotion emerge not despite but because of the complex arrangement of narrative origami that enfolds them. Asteroid City, according to Vikram Murthi, proposes that authentic candor, about grief or real-world concerns, can arise from the stagiest settings”.1

Asteroid City, in other words, is a villanelle: a constrictive poetic form that opens up space, within its constraints, for the articulation of emotion. The first and third lines of a villanelle’s opening stanza take turns closing each of the subsequent tercets, until a final quatrain brings them together, at last, in a terminal couplet. Dylan Thomas, according to James Fenton, wrote Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in the form of a villanelle (“the most difficult and intractable of fixed forms”) in order to express intense feelings that he could not communicate to his father without letting him know that he was dying”. Elizabeth Bishop, described by Dwight Garner and Parul Sehgal as a master at containing and concealing emotion”, used the rigid form of the villanelle to contain the elastic grief of One Art”, a poem with a refrain — “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” — that becomes less convincing, more desperate, with each reiteration. The incantatory repetitions of the villanelle reflect the multiple layers of Asteroid City, where the pathos of one character resonates across multiple strata of reality all at the same time.

  1. See also the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven (2021), where Tyler Leander is only able to open up a channel of communication with his mother (after decades of detachment that have perhaps played some part in his becoming a cult leader who straps land mines to children) by starring in a production of Hamlet.↩︎