Why There's So Much Symmetry In Wes Anderson Films

Describe a movie or TV show as having a "Wes Anderson-style" look, and those familiar with the quirky director's work will quickly form a picture in their mind. Anderson has become notorious for using the same set of stylistic techniques over and over in his films: smooth camera moves that stay in a single flat space; slow-motion shots (often depicting one or more people walking) set to vintage pop songs; highly detailed sets that look like life-size dollhouses. However, if there's one visual aspect of his movies that stands out above all else, it's perhaps their symmetrical compositions.

A basic Google search will immediately bring up many examples of this from Anderson's films. Most of the time, these shots involve a person (or, in the cases of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Isle of Dogs," stop-motion animated animals) facing the camera straight-on. Nearly as often, those same characters are looking right into the camera while either talking to someone else or staring at an object that's off-screen. But why is Anderson so very fond of this motif? 

Well, if you asked him, he might tell you it's just how he likes to film things (via ARTE Cinema):

"I think it's a bit like, just, it's not something I feel is important dramatically, it's just for me. I mean, I think the way I might, sort of arrange things in a frame or something like that, that's just, I compare it to handwriting or something. You might try to write very well, but really you have something your brain is inclined to do."

Formalism, Realism, and Wes Anderson

Anderson's love of symmetry, like his other favorite stylistic choices, reflects his preference for formalism over realism in the movies he directs. Now, in the broadest sense, formalism in cinema could be defined as a style of filmmaking that reflects a director's subjective perspective on and understanding of the world — where realism, as the term implies, is an approach to filmmaking that aspires to emulate the real world as objectively as possible. (If you want a deeper primer on the subject, watch Patrick (H) Willems' "Why Do We Care if Movies Are 'Realistic'?" — a video essay on realism in Hollywood blockbusters and how Lana and Lilly Wachowski's 2008 "Speed Racer" movie gloriously bucked this trend.)

In the context of Anderson's filmography, his formalist methods work together to serve a simple function: to remind those who are watching one of his movies that they are, well, watching a movie that was crafted by real people. Even the way he employs stop-motion animation and miniatures in his live-action films calls attention to the inherent artifice of what's happening onscreen in a way that realistic CGI would not. Anderson likening his preference for symmetrical imagery to an individual's handwriting comes across as all the more apt a comparison in that regard: it shows what he's thinking when he's telling a story and, in doing so, provides some insight into who he is ... or, at least, who he wants you to believe he is. (And if you want a deeper primer on that subject, watch Thomas Flight's video essay, "Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?")

This is also what makes Anderson a bit of an acquired taste or, at worst, divisive. When a film of his like, say, "The French Dispatch" abruptly shifts from live-action into animation for an entire scene in its third act, it can come across as a whimsical stylistic choice for its own sake. But, when you keep Anderson's comment about his use of symmetry in mind, it starts to feel like a much more personal embellishment that pulls you directly into the director's brain and brings the events of the story to life in a way that just wouldn't be possible otherwise.