When Wes Anderson was 13 he decided to leave his home in Houston and spend the rest of his schooldays in France. It never happened, of course. His mother, an archaeologist, and father, who worked in the advertising industry, wouldn’t countenance the move. But still, he says, “I kept trying to make the case that I would do better in science and math if I went out there. I just had this idea that I wanted to go to school in France and that somehow I could be sent away there.”

Anderson tells me this in a hotel room at the Cannes Film Festival where his latest movie, Asteroid City, has been premiered to near unanimous adoration. The film, which is about a junior stargazing convention in a desert town in the American West in the 1950s, received a six-and-a-half-minute standing ovation and the critical consensus that the seven-time Oscar-nominated writer-director of The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom has made his funniest and most heartfelt movie.

Jason Schwartzman in Asteroid City, a film about the tensions between the urban American East and the sun-scorched West.

Anderson, 54, has suddenly and uncharacteristically found himself very “now”. His distinctive filmmaking style — colorful and visually baroque yet emotionally deadpan — is being endlessly memed on social media. The hashtag #wesanderson, featuring homemade clips of trips to the launderette or weekends in Brighton, has racked up more than a billion views on TikTok, while AI-generated blockbuster trailers in Anderson mode, such as “Star Wars: The Galactic Menagerie”, have gone viral on YouTube. Owen Wilson’s Darth Vader is, admittedly, hilarious.

Not that Anderson has watched a single one of them. “I’m very good at protecting myself from seeing all that stuff,” he says. “If somebody sends me something like that I’ll immediately erase it and say, ‘Please, sorry, do not send me things of people doing me.’ Because I do not want to look at it, thinking, ‘Is that what I do? Is that what I mean?’ I don’t want to see too much of someone else thinking about what I try to be because, God knows, I could then start doing it.”

Anderson, 54, has suddenly and uncharacteristically found himself very “now.”

Despite the buzz, that melancholic French school story is Anderson’s way in today. He’s talking about Asteroid City and what it says about the tensions between the urban American East and the sun-scorched West, which leads us inevitably to his persona as the ultimate East Coast intellectual who was actually born and raised in Texas yet never felt he belonged.

“At that age I don’t think I allowed myself to feel, or to acknowledge, how much I felt like I didn’t fit in,” he says, dressed in a light blue pin-striped summer suit, face still glowing slightly red from the heat down on the Croisette. He is eminently polite, self-deprecating, self-critical, earnest and shy. “I think I had probably too much embarrassment about not fitting in to even let it be known to myself that this was the case.”

Asteroid City, like The French Dispatch before it, is another star-laden postmodern puzzle box about the troubled protagonists of a play within a play (within a play). The cast includes Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody and Matt Dillon, who are part of an eccentric gathering of scientists, schoolchildren, parents and military officials. Together with a grieving father called Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and a lonely movie star called Midge (Scarlett Johansson), they meet in the summer of 1955 in the fictional desert town of the title (actual location: Chinchón, near Madrid). There they wrestle with family dramas, nascent romance and existential despair while the action repeatedly cuts to a monochrome New York stage version of the same story, inhabited by the same cast, all theater actors now, who regularly interrogate the logic of the text.

Scarlett Johansson and Schwartzman in Asteroid City, the latest star-laden film by Wes Anderson.

Like most previous Anderson outings, the film comes laden with the kind of deep-diving cultural references and extracurricular allusions that make some pre-screening homework almost mandatory. The film contains references to the interiors of Truman Capote’s house in Long Island, and the playwrights William Inge and Arthur Miller. There are frames that mirror Roy Schatt’s “torn sweater” series of James Dean portraits and Eve Arnold’s photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits. There are nods to Ace in the Hole, Bad Day at Black Rock and Grace Kelly’s outfits in Rear Window, as well as the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the life of Elia Kazan, the vocal cadences of Stanley Kubrick and even the Road Runner cartoons.

Anderson is aware that his dense auteurist style can overload the casual viewer, especially when his films often eschew a thundering central narrative. “Precious!” his critics claim. “Pickled in his own pretension!” others say. “But that stuff is in there for the same reason that everything else is,” he says. “I’m just seeing what I can do to make it better. And it’s not my deliberate intention to make something unfamiliar or complicated. And I know the one thing you can’t say is, ‘Well if you didn’t like it would you just see it again?’ But sometimes I feel that it helps to know the movie to see the movie. And then when you see it a second time it can be a different experience. But people who don’t like the movie tend not to want to do another round. You can only ask so much.”

Tom Hanks, Hope Davis, and Liev Schreiber, part of an eccentric gathering of scientists, schoolchildren, parents, and military officials in Anderson’s new film.

Asteroid City’s secret weapon, however, is not the cultural analysis, but the feeling. It’s the expression, yes, of someone who never felt like they belonged, but it’s also something deeper than that. There’s a quiet undertow of sadness to the film that’s entirely new to the Wes-iverse. It’s felt in the character of Augie who, as the film opens, is yet to tell his three young daughters that their mother has died. That death hangs over the film and informs the spirit of its characters, who look to the skies for desperate signs of evidence that will eradicate their cosmic loneliness.

Anderson says his “advanced age” and family life is behind the feeling in Asteroid City. He has a seven-year-old daughter, Freya, with the Lebanese designer and author Juman Malouf, and says that he has recently started to sense the creep of mortality. “I never used to think about having not much time left for this or that, or noticing how the time had disappeared so fast. It didn’t have an emotional effect on me whatsoever,” he says. “But now my daughter will be, well, I will be very old when my daughter is still very young. I am an old father. And maybe with modern medicine it’s better than it used to be, but you know …” He sighs and stops.

He is eminently polite, self-deprecating, self-critical, earnest and shy.

We go back to his childhood and that strange time as a young Texan outsider, beguiled by literature and film, writing one-act plays in school when he was ten and religiously scouring the pages of The New Yorker, trying to envisage a future far away. “The New Yorker was this thing that I looked at every week as much for whatever was in the whole body of the thing as for the beginning bit, where they just tell you what’s happening in New York that week,” he says. “And I was following all that stuff just thinking, ‘It’s inevitable. I’m going to be a part of that. I have to.’ ”

His first film, the comedy heist Bottle Rocket, was a flop, but championed by Martin Scorsese, who anointed Anderson a hot new maverick. With Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Haynes and Kelly Reichardt, Anderson became part of a new wave of author-driven American cinema. Success followed, from Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums to the Oscar-winning commercial juggernaut The Grand Budapest Hotel, which made $173 million on a relatively paltry $25 million budget. Anderson evolved into an actor’s favorite, famed for shooting more than 100 takes a scene and drawing into his repertory company an increasingly starry list of names including Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Timothée Chalamet and Johansson.

Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums, followed a dysfunctional family reluctantly gathered under the same roof for various reasons.

How does such a polite and self-effacing fellow handle all those A-list egos? “Mostly, actorly ego is simply, ‘Well you may think you’ve got it, but I don’t think I’ve got it, so let’s go again’,” he says. “And it’s very easy to give into that because it’s someone saying, ‘I want to keep working to try and do better.’ Somebody like Ralph Fiennes? He’s priestly, or religious, about his approach. I have so many actors where I feel like I’ve pushed them to go again and they’ve said, ‘Really? We’re going again?’ But Ralph always wants to go again. In fact, with Ralph I’ll say [does tentative voice] ‘I think, Ralph, we’ve got … [impersonates Fiennes, cutting him off with a hand gesture] Oh. You want to go again? Then let’s go again.’ ”

Anderson isn’t sure what he wants to do next. He has already completed another animated adaptation of Roald Dahl, following Fantastic Mr Fox with George Clooney. This one is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, starring the voices of Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Henry Sugar) and Ben Kingsley. He says he imagined his next live-action movie after Asteroid City would be “very dark and gravely serious” but when he finally got round to writing the script it came out “kind of like a Marx Brothers movie”. He can’t say anything more about it.

He divides his time between a flat in Paris and the main family home in Kent. “We just found a house that we liked there.” I remind him of an interview in which he once said, with some bravado, that he hoped to die, aged 90, on a film set. He winces slightly. “Yes. That’s good. But I do feel a different thing now, which is somehow my family is more part of it now. And the only thing about [dying on] the film set is that they won’t be there.” He pauses and chuckles. “But, you know, they don’t need to see me die. They have enough to worry about. They can just take my ashes.”

Kevin Maher is the chief film critic for The Times of London and the author of two novels, The Fields and Last Night on Earth