Established film directors routinely work on commercials to keep their hand in when they’re between projects or to try out new tricks or technology. Or just for the hell of it. All those factors are evident in Wes Anderson’s four-minute Christmas commercial for H&M.
The director of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel has made more advertisements than movies, and most of them have stuck to his signature style: fastidiously-detailed candy-coloured sets and costumes, unbearably precious hipster characters, a camera that glides elegantly in every direction with geometrical precision and a dusting of cinematic and literary references.
There was his tribute to Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, with Brad Pitt as the bumbling holidaymaker (the brand, as if that matters, was the Japanese company SoftBank) and the deliciously funny American Express ad, which combined Day For Night with Apocalypse Now and starred Anderson himself as our tour guide through the orchestrated chaos of one of his own film sets.
No one watching these is likely to think: Who on earth could have directed this? That’s the point. That’s why you hire Wes Anderson.
Only on his ad for Ikea, where he uses a borderline-unruly handheld camera, has he come close to shrugging off his trademark mannerisms. I bet he needed a stiff drink after that one.
The H&M spot is a more characteristically tidy affair, brimming with style and symmetry. It’s named after a Beatles song (“Come Together”) and ends with a John Lennon one – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”.
It takes place as Christmas Eve blurs into Christmas Day on board the H&M Lines Winter Express sleeper train manned by Conductor Ralph, played by Adrien Brody. That actor’s presence, along with the locomotive location, inevitably recalls Anderson’s 2007 comedy The Darjeeling Limited. Ralph announces over the Tannoy system that poor weather and technical difficulties have delayed the journey by eleven-and-a-half hours: they won’t be home for Christmas.
The camera begins its predictable and visually satisfying tracking shot across the different compartment windows, taking in an array of passengers, among them a woman reading Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, a brooding skier and a moon-eyed child staring out from behind an “unaccompanied minor” sign.
As usual, the production design is the star. The colours are as deliciously evocative as you would expect, not least the pale mint of the train’s interior and the warm peachy-pink of the bathroom where a woman stands at the sink, lost in thought.
Ralph and his porter, Fritz, have a trick up their sleeves to chase away the blues. The passengers are asked to convene in the rear coach in 20 minutes’ time. It is the passing of those 20 minutes that gives Anderson the chance to execute the visual coup which surely made the film worth doing.
As the train passes through a series of tunnels, the camera stares down the empty corridor; the light changes, moving from bright to dark to a golden glow and then back to bright. It’s the visual equivalent of the way the sound changes in The Shining when the child’s rumbling buggy shifts back and forth between the rugs and the wooden floor.
Once the train is out of the tunnels, the passengers emerge from their compartments one at a time. As the recording of “The Little Drummer Boy”, which has been playing throughout the commercial, draws to a close, they pad along the corridor to the rear coach where they find… Well, see for yourself. You wouldn’t want me to spoil Anderson’s Christmas surprise, would you?
It’s a sweet, inconsequential treat with the advantage – unlike some of Anderson’s feature-length work – of not going on long enough for the sugar to begin corroding your soul. Brody’s doleful face makes a nice counterpoint to the festive cheer. I also liked the faithful, uncomplaining Fritz, who doesn’t grimace when Ralph plonks a Santa hat on his head. Fritz is played by the British director Garth Jennings, who made Son of Rambow and the forthcoming CGI animation Sing, and has a good track record himself in meticulously designed music videos (Blur’s “Coffee and TV”, REM’s “Imitation of Life”).
As for Anderson, Come Together is a pleasant diversion. He’s throwing his fans a bone, or rather a Bonio, while he finishes his new stop-motion animated feature about dogs. What the commercial has to do with H&M is anyone’s guess. But that’s advertising for you. The point is simply to get everyone saying the brand name. So I guess it worked.