Anderson very deftly accomplishes a great deal of exposition at the beginning of Moonrise Kingdom by using several techniques of mise en scene such as composition, camera proxemics, and character placement as well as movement and sound. The unconventionality of the first several shots prepares the audience for the strangeness of Suzy and Sam Shukusky (Jared Gilman) as well as the quirkiness of the overall film.
A stationary shot at a little below eye-level introduces us to Suzy wearing her red checkered frock and white stockings she sports for the rest of the film. The girl serves as the dominant contrast in this shot because of her motion, but her binoculars, situated in the middle of the foreground, are the most emphasized object in the room. Throughout Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson includes numerous shots where Suzy looks directly at the camera through her binoculars, underscoring her desire to see exotic places and new things while she disregards reality. During the shot, Suzy walks down the stairs and moves toward the camera, but she doesn’t stop far enough away for us to get a good look at her; rather she pauses just where her head is out of frame before putting her cat on the table and picking up her binoculars. The movement introduces us to two of Suzy’s favorite things. By having Suzy place the cat in the foreground at the end of that shot, Anderson puts special emphasis on the creature, since Suzy packs tons of cat food for her trip in order to feed her pet but takes no food for herself.
During the film’s exposition, a record plays that explains the orchestral breakdown of a piece of music. Anderson is further emphasizing the set-up quality of the film; he wants us to see and hear a preparation as he prepares Moonrise Kingdom for us. As Suzy comes down the stairs and walks towards the table, the recording says “these smaller pieces are called variations, which means different ways of playing the same tune.” The word “variations” has a few implications for Suzy. First, she’s unconventional and puts a variation on the idea of the little rich girl. However, Suzy also has very severe mood swings as we see later on during the montage in which she and Sam exchange letters. This shot functions as a very informative but brief explanation of Suzy’s character and very subtly lays out what we can expect from her throughout the film.
In the previous shots, the music from the recording functioned as diegetic sound, emanating from the small record player one of Suzy’s brothers turned on. However, in this shot, the music switches from diegetic to non-diegetic sound and thereby brings us more into the story. Also, the auditory shift marks the transition from the inside of the Bishop’s house to the outside where Suzy wants to be, so the music’s more realistic sound emphasizes the girl’s desire to “fly the coop.” A menacing thunderclap punctuates the end of the orchestral song, suggesting that Suzy’s perception of her pathetic life may not be very far-fetched from reality. On a more metaphysical level, however, by having Suzy break frame and the music become non-diegetic, Anderson makes us feel like he’s presenting Moonrise Kingdom to us as a story rather than simply disregarding its immediate connection to the viewer.
Once we return to the inside of the Bishop’s home, the non-diegetic sound of the record switches to semi-diegetic because it again reverts to its record-like sound quality but remains at a constant volume as the camera moves through the home, indicating that its source cannot be onscreen. The switch back to unimpressive, subdued music within Suzy’s house further emphasizes her tedium with her family, which we see again at the end of this shot as she stares at us through her binoculars. When the camera reaches Suzy’s parents, the recording says, “First we hear the woodwind family; the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets, and the bassoons.” The breakdown of orchestral components parallels Anderson’s breakdown of the different characters in Moonrise Kingdom.
The deep-focus used in this shot shows the numerous piles of books in the foreground, which we later learn are due to Suzy’s parent’s occupations as lawyers. As in the other shots thus far, only small, warm lights provide illumination for the image, making the house appear homier and more inviting in order to establish the contented façade that Suzy’s parents maintain. Also, in the far plane of the background, the windows show the greyness of the weather outside that makes for an unhappy and dissatisfied envelope around the seemingly functional family atmosphere within. The camera moves through a hallway to provide another bit of foreshadowing by giving the audience a brief look at the bike that Mrs. Bishop uses when she goes to see Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the man with whom she is having an affair.
The way Anderson manipulates sound as a transitional technique, the linear, non-impeded camera movement, and the descriptive mise en scène indicates to us that he is building the necessary exposition for Moonrise Kingdom much like plays present the needed backstory before they begin. His use of long, sweeping pans through the Bishop’s uncommonly long hallways reminds me of how props are cleared off stage during theatrical productions, especially since each lateral pan shows us new series of rooms or sets in the film. By “setting the stage” for his audience, Anderson doesn’t throw the bizarre world of Moonrise Kingdom at us; he invites us to watch.
--written by Morgan Honaker, a filmmaker living in Austin, Texas