Even if you haven’t seen a Wes Anderson film, you’re undoubtedly familiar with his signature style. His brightly coloured, formalist yet flamboyantly retro visual film-making and perfectly styled cartoonish characters have made a massive impact over the years. From flat-lays to the font Futura – fans were devastated when he jettisoned it for 2013’s Moonrise Kingdom – Anderson’s visual tics have become commonplace.

Beautifully detailed sets, elaborate costumes, outlandish hair, great soundtracks with a bunch of classic needle drops; they’re all Wes Anderson trademarks. His films are just fun – enjoyable in a way that draws your attention then rewards it. But the costumes and dollhouse sets aren’t just there to make you admire the artistry. His films work because they’re full of surface pleasures that connect to what his stories are actually about. Comedy but with a trace of tragedy.

Regular characters
Since his second film Rushmore, he’s consistently served up the same surface pleasures, while beneath the surface (literally in his underwater epic The Life Aquatic) his films have covered a growing range of subjects and emotions. It’s just that sometimes people get distracted because all his films (bar his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket) star Bill Murray.

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If you’ve been enjoying Murray’s second act as a world-weary indie movie fixture, you’ve got Anderson to thank. Murray’s role as a dissolute father figure in Rushmore is what kick-started Murray’s new career direction; without it, he might have faded away like so many other ‘80s comedy fixtures instead of becoming a pop culture icon. Anderson clearly knows he’s struck gold. He hasn’t made a film without him since.

Murray’s not the only regular feature in Anderson’s films. The director’s built up quite a cabal of familiar fixtures over the years, starting with his university room-mate Owen Wilson, who starred in Bottle Rocket; Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman are regulars; in recent years Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe have shown off their slightly sillier sides. He’s also great when it comes to putting a new spin on a famous face. Moonrise Kingdom features probably the last great acting performance we’re likely to see from Bruce Willis.

Where to begin
If you’re looking for an entry point, his third film The Royal Tenenbaums features all his trademarks: the action largely takes place in one elaborate set (here it’s the Tenenbaum’s crumbling New York mansion) and there’s a large cast of charmingly off-beat and troubled characters. There’s a strong literary sensibility behind it all (in part it’s a salute to J.D. Salinger’s Glass family), the song selection is note-perfect, and the whole thing is both extremely funny and bracingly sad.

Stop-motion Anderson
The auteur has branched out into stop-motion animation in recent years, a move both surprising (what other successful live-action director suddenly makes a movie with miniatures one frame at a time?) and the logical endpoint to Anderson’s desire for control. To date he’s made the Roald Dahl adaptation The Fantastic Mr Fox – memorably voiced by George Clooney – and the slightly futuristic tale of canine survival Isle of Dogs, led by Bryan Cranston.

Box office high
Anderson’s biggest hit to date has been his most recent live-action film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. A return to large-scale storytelling featuring three time periods and multiple plotlines, its set largely in the 1930s during the reign of hotel concierge M Gustave (an hilarious Ralph Fiennes) at the titular hotel. With a huge cast and stunning sets, it’s the most swooningly excessive and joyful of his caper films, while also a surprisingly sombre look at a world swept away by the rise of mid-century fascism in Europe.

The French Dispatch
His latest film, The French Dispatch (technically The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) returns to this anthology framework. A cast of offbeat characters working for a struggling magazine supplement in the mid 20th century, sees an often manic plot include a jailed artist, student riots and a criminal kidnapping. Featuring a cavalcade of Anderson regulars, it also introduces new faces to the Anderson-universe including Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro and Henry Winkler. (Is Bill Murray in there somewhere? Do you have to ask?)

While more clearly a comedy than Anderson’s last few features, The French Dispatch still finds space for nuance and melancholy amongst the chaos. It’s been a constant across his career; even with his lighter films the stylish, controlled surface can’t conceal the loss and trauma his characters struggle with.

And this is the secret to his success – beneath all the stylistic tics, the bright colours and clever costumes and well-chosen fonts, his films have heart.

The French Dispatch is in cinemas December 9.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with The French Dispatch.