On Tuesday, June 9, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored Wes Anderson, the accomplished film director, with the insignia of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The award was presented in an intimate ceremony at Albertine Books, part of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City.
Thank you for joining us this evening to honor Wes Anderson. We’re very happy to have you all here tonight, and I hope you brought your cigarettes, wet suit and walkie-talkie helmet.
As the Cultural Counselor I am honored to have you receive this decoration. You’re one of today’s most innovative filmmakers. Your movies explore delicate themes like childhood and coming of age. They balance loss, pathos, and wry humor. Your characters are flawed but loveable. Your work feels human in a way that many Hollywood movies do not.
But wait a minute – let’s rewind. Because if we’ve learned anything from your, it’s that we should speak with color. So here goes. Underwater shots, slow motion, and lonely prairies — they are the signature of your genius reel.
A spotted mouse can dominate the wide frame in your surreal flicks and you frequently elevate even the depressed grimace.
The culture industry spends a lot of time talking about you – your subdued surrealism and fondness for the Futura font. But let’s make like Zissou and dive in deep. What is so special about Wes? What is so special for us diplomats, for us at the French Embassy? You know, we diplomats travel constantly, and every three years we have to change countries. And in all of your movies, the idea of a “journey” is present. So I think that’s also one of the reasons why your movies appeal to us.
All of your characters plunge into an idiosyncratic universe. They follow wayward paths. Where to? Well, that’s besides the point.
Your characters keep a sharp eye out for happiness. But more often they stumble upon wholesome melancholy. You remind us in the best way that love and happiness are often intertwined with weirdness and internal conflict.
As Peter says in Darjeeling Limited, “He said the train is lost.” Jack continues, “How can a train be lost? Its on rails.” And that reminds me, really, of a diplomatic career. We are on some sort of train, but we don’t know where we are going. But it’s OK, we are on the trains of our careers. And it’s very often an idiosyncratic world, as I was telling you just before.
You bend the rails of cinema and bring it to new, untraceable pastures.
Your highly saturated circus colors don’t just open our eyes. They cut right through the eyeball like the first scene of Un Chien Andalou. That’s exactly what we want in films, because the eyes are the door way to the soul. You yank open that door to a world that is really yours but reminds us strangely of ours.
But if you are here tonight it is not only because you are a great filmmaker. It is also because you are a certified francophile. And of course, only they get medals. Since 2005, you’ve split your time between New York and Paris. As your friend, writer and director Nicolas Saada, tells us, you sniff out a Paris that only your nose could locate. Adventurous restaurants and obscure locales open up a city foreign even to Parisians. So the next time I’m in Paris, I really want to tour Paris with you. Secret hideouts and tourist-free time-capsule cafés are everyone’s idea of Paris, but Wes, apparently you truly uncover the authentic.
Starting long before your part-time move to Paris you peppered your work with bits of French culture. “The Life Aquatic” is a fictionalized ode to Jacques Cousteau and “Moonrise Kingdom’s” star-crossed lovers swoon to Françoise Hardy.
You aren’t just an American director who happens to enjoy la culture française. You are a scholar of French cinema from the New Wave to the present; from Renoir to Assayas.
You bring a distinctly French sensibility to American theaters. It was Truffaut’s classic “Les Quatre Cent Coups” that helped push you towards your art. And we can feel Truffaut’s presence in your most moving work. Like “400 Blows,” “Rushmore” balances levity with undercurrents of darkness. It shares Truffaut’s wonderfully nostalgic fascination with childhood. And in “The Life Aquatic,” Zissou tells his first mate Klaus, “Not this one, Klaus,” just as Jules tells Jim, “Not this one, Jim.” I don’t mean that you stole it — it’s an inspiration.
Taking a hint from New Wave directors, you use the camera not to conceal artifice but to emphasize it. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” your quick cuts away from the action use the camera itself as a narrative tool. When Richie shaves before attempting suicide, New Wave-style jump cuts further heighten the emotional charge. It is a beautiful scene, and it is vintage Wes Anderson — a nod to French cinema but a scene all your own.
You epitomize the notion of the auteur. You are so close to your medium that we can liken you to a painter or a writer. Your movies ooze humanity and the audience can sense a master craftsman on the other side of the screen.
But the greatest testament to your incredibly broad appeal is how influential your signature style has become. In the wake of your masterpieces, filmmakers far and wide have found critical success making off-kilter movies.
Your warm-hearted but rigorous approach to filmmaking has altered the contours of American cinema, as I’m sure all our guests here will confirm. You are a true auteur, and above all, your movies are a joy to watch. That’s the most important thing.
For all of these reasons, it is my honor tonight to present you with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.
If this were The Royal Tenenbaums, while pinning the medal on you, I would accidentally pierce your flesh, but it’s not and I won’t—I promise.
Cher Wes Anderson, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.