Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Gimme some Sugar, baby


Written and directed by Wes Anderson (based on the short stories "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," "The Swan," "The Rat Catcher," and "Poison" by Roald Dahl)

Spoilers: moderate

The irritation here is that Wes Anderson's 2023 collection of four short films, "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," "The Swan," "The Rat Catcher," and "Poison," has been presented as a collection of four, individual short films.  All are drawn from the stories of the same author, Roald Dahl, whose intellectual properties were purchased by Netflix two years back for an obscene amount of money; all are directed (and written for the screen) by the same filmmaker, entrusted with making the best first impression for Netflix's stewardship of those properties; all were released within 96 hours of each other; and each one deploys, with only a little variationfar less variation than was deployed in, to pick a film at complete random, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sunthe same stylistic conceits, including sharing a framing device with the same narrator, this being Anderson's fictional version of Roald Dahl (Ralph Fiennes).  In toto, these four short films run a nice, proper 95 minutes or so.  Non-insane people wouldn't think about presenting this as anything besides an anthology film, such as was exactly the case back in Anderson's film before last, which was, coincidentally, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun; and this collection of short films represents a more monolithic anthology film than the vast, vast majority of avowed anthology films do.  So it's irritating, anyway, on just the basic user interface level of each film having separate intros and outros, while, astonishingly for a streamer, they don't even autoplay one after the other; you'll have to look up what their release dates were (they were respectively released on the nights of September 27, 28, 29, and 30, 2023) to watch them in orderand I was intent upon some kind of order, and not just random chaosfor Netflix does not, in fact, present them in the correct chronological release date order in their "Roald Dahl Collection" (which also has the two adaptations of Matilda in it, for added muddle).

This might strike you as borderline-autistic bitching about nothing, but it's off-putting to find a creator like Wes Anderson, whose north star is structure, frequently structure purely for structure's sakea philosophy by no means repudiated within the actual content of these films!abandoning structure for no apparent reason.  One is bound to assume it's on purpose, but what that purpose is remains mysterious, though for all I know it's just because these were simply Anderson's favorite un-adapted Dahl stories and he didn't want to link them beyond the basic aesthetic commonality of being Anderson films all made at the same time and with a small, interlocking cast.  But then you have the first two (or the first two I watched), which, to my mind, dovetail thematically quite well, while the next one is nothing but the slenderest little shocker.  Then there's the last one, which could almost sit alongside the first two until it veers off into being the oddest one of the whole bunch, despite being the one that most completely mirrors the cast of the first one.  And that leaves it something of lumpy, awkward package, in the way it's almost but not quite a narratively coherent whole (for comparison's sake, The French Dispatch is an ecstatically coherent whole).  Perhaps Anderson just thought it might be gauche to release two features in a single year, almost one atop the anotherAsteroid City came out not even four months agoand perhaps it's in tacit recognition that if this were an acknowledged feature, which we would call The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar for convenience, they'd have to be treated as his two worst movies in ages.

The good news, however, is that Anderson doesn't make bad movies.  The separateness I've spent such a long time complaining about is probably the worst thing about it.  In fact, I'm rather warmer on Henry Sugar than on Asteroid City, despite the real possibility that Henry Sugar might not be as good, because whether Henry Sugar's "quite good" or "very good" or "modestly great"these are the options I'm willing to entertainit's exciting in all the ways that Asteroid City was a little bit deflating, with this one not so much about how Wes Anderson is terrified of what he's become, and it finds the director doing fresh, new things.  I do, of course, mean "new" in an iterative sense.  This is no radical breakit is not any "break" at allin Anderson's decades-long career trajectory toward becoming an ever-purer version of himself.  But there's a sense of resumption here, back to his customary playfulness, even if it's mostly experimenting in quantitative terms.

And so what we have, starting with the first short, "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," is sort of an inversion of Asteroid City's conceit of a stageplay becoming a (stagey, Wes Andersony) motion picture.  We begin with what one supposes is a junky TV interview, or a junky blu-ray special feature, about Dahl.  Dahl briefly introduces us to his own working hut in England, while detailing the brass-tacks physical part of his writing process before he launches into Henry Sugar's (Benedict Cumberbatch's) wonderful story; and everythingevery. the entire movie outside of the interior of this hut will be presented as stagecraft, or as computer-juiced imagery intended to resemble stagecraft, with Anderson still giving himself some leave to investigate the z-axis with camera dollies in a way that stagecraft would not readily permit.  And I mean "stagecraft" above and beyond your kneejerk response, "oh sure, I've seen a Wes Anderson movie before."  (Though another contender for "the worst part" is some of the compositing around Cumberbatch that reveals at least one backdrop is CGI, and I'd have admired it more if I could've pretended this was all physically-present sets and temporally-continuous choreography, though the movie does have a great deal of that to come.)  Dahl's hut interior, meanwhile, because it is stylistically distinct and feels at least vaguely "real," receives one of the more interesting flourishes here, a sort of "perfect imperfection" type of thing that I confess to being momentarily annoyed by, though I now find it immensely charming, with Anderson's now-traditional cuts from one 90 degree angle shot to another uniformly arriving with some very visible, on-camera adjustments to the lighting set-up.  Now, Dahl does sometimes walk outside, and his "real world" exteriorslike everything elseare the flattest possible props.  And there is something fascinating in regards to what Anderson is saying about the creative mindset, albeit probably, as usual, more his own mindset than anybody else's.

That's awfully belaboring of the first two minutes of this movie, though, and Henry Sugar would likely agree, as he seizes control of Dahl's narrative at the first opportunity, cutely enough when the author enters Henry's world, which actually does have a great deal more depth than Dahl's, at least to the extent that the sets sometimes go back twenty or thirty feet.  But when I say that "Henry seizes control," what I mean is that Henry takes over as the narrator, even as he performs the various actions of his character; and this is a thing across all four segments.  It is not, as indicated, actually novel to Anderson; most of Anderson's movies offer a healthy portion of actors giving direct address to the camera.  But the maximalist version of this is new, and at least half and quite probably two-thirds of the film's lines are all direct address, mostly from level shots of characters standing in the foreground, looking forward at the camera and telling you what they're doingsometimes, excitingly, it's shots of characters looking up at a camera above them and telling you what they're doing, and I know I sound sarcastic and I suppose I kind of am, but I'm also being seriousand this commitment to this one highly-specific mode of hyper-artifice actually does wind up distinct from Anderson's usual distancing effects, with 95 minutes of it amounting to something that might be genuinely unique, more of an illustrated audiobook than what motion pictures, or even plays, are "supposed" to be.  I at least get the sense that much of the spoken lines here are pretty much what Dahl wrote, narration and dialogue alike.

However, in the case of "Henry Sugar," this audiobook gets passed around a couple more times, because it's also playing with that other Andersonian predilection of nested stories: thus, Henry finds a curious book in his library, a handwritten notebook, that attracts his attention; this is the report of a medical doctor, Z.Z. Chatterjee (Dev Patel), who made the acquaintance of a stage illusionist, Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), whose act, he claims, is not an illusion; Khan has made his career as the man who can see without eyes, and he convinces Chatterjee beyond any doubt that he can really do it, having gained the power from a yogi hermit (Richard Ayoade); Chatterjee has recorded Khan's explanation of the yogi's mystical training regimen in detail.  In a great irony, Henry turns out to be miraculously adept at yogic magic.  The irony is that Henry is a shithead; he uses his newfound power to cheat at cards.  Except perhaps Henry is not a shithead, for when he wins, he realizes, with an epiphany, that it has not made him happier.

"Henry Sugar" is the longest segment here, by a factor of two, a status it easily earns just by being the best of them.  Maybe the biggest part of that is simply because it's first: it is, anyway, the one that surprises you the most, by committing permanently to mostly-monologue; but it's also the funniest.  The segments are funny in largely the same whimsical-deadpan, Andersony waysnarration that seemingly paraphrases characters within the story, followed by that character revealing it was a direct quotation; the sheer barely-there abstraction of the ultra-Brechtian ramshackleness of film's/films' construction of their worlds and Adam Stockhausen's production design in particular, which got a giggle out of me once with a painted cloud, and slightly blew my mind with the practical primitivism used to render Henry's later ability to "levitate"but these things are all at their best here for "Henry Sugar."  As a bonus, "Henry Sugar" adds the narcissistic smugness of Cumberbatch's performance to the mix, which is a joke in itself, though more importantly it's a guide for finding some legitimate emotion in this ridiculously artificial thing, sometimes for Henry, and more in the ways the contrast with Henry brings out the incredibly subtle sadness that Kingsley's layering into his direct address.  (So subtle, in fact, that Stockhausen is doing the heaviest lifting for him, and that's how you know that Kingsley and Anderson are great, because they understand that's the right choice.)  But around the point that my plot synopsis above stops, Dahl interjects, assuring us that while maybe this isn't a particularly good story, that's only because, he declares, it's a true story, and he provides an alternative that would've been the "better," "fictional" ending.  The thing is, the ending we get is better, at least for everyone in the story, and weirder still it primes you to start thinking about stories, which is always ten seconds away in any Anderson film, but "Henry Sugar" parallels Asteroid City in very particular ways, asking the same questions about whether pretending is not just better than facing reality but, indeed, whether it's realer, too.  It does this with less full-bore aesthetic beauty, but it does do it in half the time.  And, as I mentioned, it does it with some actual (even keen!) human feelings to be felt on behalf of anyone inside the story.  (9/10)

We move along to "The Swan," which is a bit of stereotypical Dahl meanness: a man (Rupert Friend) who used to be a boy (Asa Jenings) tells the tale of how he was once terrorized by a pair of terrible bullies, and, it certainly seems, how he must have died at their hands, though obviously this is thoroughgoingly confused by the conceit of his adult self's narration, and it's also both suggested and denied by the content of that narration.  It's a very strange little trifle, but it's getting at something like the same things as "Henry Sugar," albeit more obliquely (and "Henry Sugar" was oblique already), in that it likewise offers the possibility of choosing which version of things we'd prefer, while explicitly choosing for itself the more optimistic one.  As far the thing itself goes, it's more like a brief meditation, by way of the bare minimum number of props and camera angles, upon the subjective terror of being placed underneath a train.  (It also eventually involves a swan.)  It probably winds up with the single prettiest storybook picture of all the segments, courtesy what is, I believe, a miniature of a willow tree (the alternative is it's a painting), though it's also the one where you can tell it was partially shot outdoors and not by the cinematographer on the rest of them, Anderson's trusty collaborator Robert Yeoman.  (Though frequent Anderson co-writer and infrequent-cinematographer Roman Coppola does a pretty good job.) (7/10) 

The series fills out its middle with "The Rat Catcher," and this is a very middle segment.  If these are independent shorts and not segments in an anthology, "The Rat Catcher" doesn't even strongly argue for a right to exist, and I'd probably actively dislike it.  It's pretty much just an excuse for a gross little anecdote, as told by the editor of a small newspaper (Ayoade), regarding an encounter with the Rat Man (Fiennes), who has come to clear out the rats from a nearby field.  If "The Rat Catcher" has some deeper significance than saying "ew, yuck," I'm at a loss to tell you what it is.  And that's fine: anecdotes are the bread and butter of anthologies, and of storytelling, except what "The Rat Catcher" is not is any excuse to do what you probably think it will, and which it certainly should, which is to indulge in Anderson's love of stop motion animation effects, or Anderson's love of rupturing violence.  (At least it finds, for several shots, an excuse to serve as a little showcase for Yeoman's art, when he gets to turn the Rat Man into a brief series of 1930s horror movie images, or, more accurately, 1930s horror movie posters.)  It's got nerve, I'll give it that, being an exercise in testing the absolute outer limits of Henry Sugar's abiding visual minimalismFiennes is tasked with, amongst other things, pantomiming a battle between a ferret and a rat inside his shirtbut it probably should not have required an exercise to know these limits were there.  This is even assuming good faith, which I doubt, because this aggressively breaches those limits: as far as that "stop motion animation" goes, it actually does have one stop motion-animated rat, in a single shot where it interacts with no one, and does nothing.  "The Rat Catcher" is fucking with us, but I at least enjoy the juvenile nastiness of the story itself, and Yeoman conjures a nice smoky-gray working-class quality on its behalf. (5/10)

We end with "Poison," which concerns Harry (Cumberbatch), an Englishman in British India, who's visited one night by his friend Woods (Patel).  Woods is confused when Harry demands that he take his shoes off, won't speak above an angry whisper, and won't get out of bed; Harry explains there's a small and intensely venomous snake that's decided to crawl into his sheets, and which is presently taking a nap on his stomach.  Woods gets Dr. Ganderbai (Kingsley), but who knows what might happen when that snake wakes up?

"Poison" does not, I'm afraid, tie in so far as I can see with the rest of it any better than "The Rat Catcher" does, and ultimately it ties in less: to some degree or another, "The Rat Catcher" is still "about storytelling."  You can maybe squint, very hard, and see "Poison" as yet a third fable about belief becoming one's whole reality. (That turns out to be exactly what Harry's done, for there isn't any snake.)  But it's difficult, because this one makes an idiosyncratic and fairly uncharacteristic swerve into straight-up political allegory, and I liked it a great deal more when it was still a fable, even if it turns out to have been exactly as much a-political-allegory-and-not-a-fable when Roald Dahl wrote itI'd guess it's why the title is "Poison" and not "Venom," and while I don't know anything about Dahl's politics besides his antisemitism (and this is literally the only Dahl story I've ever read), I can't imagine it being interpreted any other wayand basically no real liberties are taken with the bulk of it except to add some jokes and to change a brief recollection of combat against Nazi Germans to combat against Imperial Japanese, presumably because that always would've made more sense in a story set in India.  It does change Dahl's text rather noticeably right at the endit's presumably also significant that Woods is played by Patel rather than, say, Friendand this is partly "oh Christ, is Wes Anderson getting in on censoring Roald Dahl now?", but mostly it's because an allegorical sentiment that works on the page wouldn't have worked in a movie, even for this kind of movie.  It's also because Anderson's wont is to inject melancholy into things, and so he does, with an enigmatic last line from Kingsley that could be interpreted at least four different ways, which is a great last line for this short and a terrible last line for this collection of short films.

As for the first nine-tenths of "Poison," like "The Rat Catcher," it's an exercise, but an infinitely more enjoyable one.  The goal here is to stage a miniature thriller with as few narrative elements but as much artificial embroidery as possible, and it sings; as a piece of pure craft, I admire it even more than "Henry Sugar," and, thanks to the urgency of its scenario, none of the other segments are as splendid at the choreographic interplay between the functions of narrator and character, or as adept at using the breakaway setsor the cinematic elaborations of angles, splitscreen, equal partners with that choreography.  And it's just a really tight, fun procedural thrillerthe worst you can say about it is that Cumberbatch and Anderson don't appear to be aware that a man whose circumstances compel him to speak in an even, mannered monotone ought to be a self-deprecating joke at Anderson's expense, and Cumberbatch's volume varies too much, but hell, I only realized this myself some hours after I watched it.  If you disagreed and decided "Poison" was also the funniest of the shorts, rather than "Henry Sugar," I think that's fine; I don't know if I laughed out loud at it as much, but there's something about how bone dry its life-and-death snake-related humor is, and the ending would be an incredible punchline if it were allowed to be a punchline, which is why I rather wish it had stayed in that lane.  It's good political allegory, but I simply don't know what a critique of empire is doing here. (8/10)

Overall, then, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is a success: Anderson's pushed his preoccupations forward, which is all I've ever wanted from him, and while the format Anderson chose (or that Netflix chose for him, for whatever arcane reasons they'd have done so) practically insists upon this project as a minor, even inessential one, Anderson's just not the kind of filmmaker who does "inessential" even when he is consciously doing "minor."

Score: 8/10


  1. I recall you mentioned somewhere that you were annoyed at Ti West for releasing X and Pearl within 6 months of each other, implying that it perhaps cheapens the impact to have them so close together. This is how I feel about Wes Anderson's 2023. I've spent the past couple months reckoning with Asteroid City and how it fits into his oeuvre and career arc, and then he drops four short-to-medium-length films of some substance to process? (I even had a whole Anderson filmography ranking prepped before I realized the extent of this Netflix release.)

    I'll definitely check it out before I do my year wrap up stuff, but I'm trying to space it out from Asteroid City. Your take matches what I've heard -- Henry Sugar the entry of most substance and formal noodling.

    1. I honestly don't know if I'm being too hard on "Poison," given that extremely hypothetically it is "supposed to be" a fully separate entity from the rest.

      X and Pearl bugged me because my impression is that they are literally integral with one another (I forget if you dissuaded me from that) and amount to a three hour obligation. Also because Ti West ain't no Wes Anderson.

    2. (Though you will notice it took half a month for me to get to the new Wes Anderson, even so.)