By James Slaymaker.
Anderson is evidently not without talent, but he has continuously proven to be content to rest on his laurels…. The French Dispatch ultimately amounts to nothing more than hollow juvenilia.”
Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a group of staff writers, illustrators and other assorted staff members gather to collectively produce an obituary for Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the founder and editor-in-chief of the fictional newspaper of the title. Howitzer stipulated in his will that, upon his passing, the publication of the paper is to immediately cease, following the release of a final issue comprised of highlights sourced from previous issues. Food critic Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) writes the first line, and then continues to type as each staff member verbally offers their own contribution to the piece. As they move on to discuss the creation of the periodical, the travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) interjects to suggest that Wright opens the new section with the wistful statement “It began as a holiday…” It’s a self-conscious call-back to the very opening line of the film, delivered by Anjelica Huston’s arch narrator before going on to establish The French Dispatch’s central characters, setting and themes. Here, however, Anderson undercuts the line with a joke. Hermes, the resident cartoonist, mulls over Sazerac’s proposal and then asks, “is that true?” Sazerac pauses for a moment and then casually replies, “Sort of”. It’s a brief, tossed-off moment, but it stood out to me for what it implicitly suggests about Anderson’s attitude towards history, nostalgia, and cultures which exist outside the comfortable familiarity of North America. Much like Anderson’s other epically scaled period drama The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch is deeply rooted in a sense of nostalgia for a lost way of life, and, as in that earlier film, The French Dispatch constantly reminds the viewer that the simulacra of history it paints is filtered through a rose-tinted lens. Many of the same strategies are used to achieve this end. The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, while The French Dispatch is set in the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé (that name, in itself, should be an indication of the register Anderson is working on here); The Grand Budapest Hotel establishes something akin to a nesting doll structure, nestling the central narrative within four different framing devices, each one of which takes place at a different era of history, while The French Dispatch dramatizes a series of fictionalized articles by fictionalized writers, while simultaneously showing the process of the pieces being conceived, workshopped and edited within the newspaper offices (the illustrations, section headings, and photo spreads which would accompany these feature articles are also incorporated into the structure as 2-dimensional inserts). Both films foreground their artifice through the use of painted backdrops, antiquated special effects, transitions in aspect ratio and – in the case of The French Dispatch – a sudden switch to 2-D animation.
The French Dispatch adds an extra layer of distanciation to the proceedings: the film’s main characters are all Americans, stationed in France but reporting on the culture for a paper intended for readers in Kansas. What we are seeing is not the actual France, Anderson signals to us, but a representation of France moulded through the myopic perspective of his characters, who view the land through a perspective of cultural ignorance. The casualness with which Sazerac responds “sort of” is telling in this regard, as it is an indication that the focalizing figures are willing to play fast and loose with the facts, to dispel with matters of verisimilitude if it gets in the way of a good story. Anderson’s impulse to foreground the layers of mediation which stand between the making of The French Dispatch and the specific epoch being portrayed is not, in and of itself, the issue – the issue is that by so incessantly reminding the viewer of the constructed-ness of the text, Anderson seems to be pre-emptively deflecting criticism for his caricatured depiction of mid-century France. From the Futura title cards, to the pastel-coloured diorama-like set design, to the lateral camera movements, to the kitschy costume design, it is clear that we’re not so much in France as an idealized vision of France, reconstructed to align with the tastes of an Anglophone director famous for rebuilding whatever culture he decides to set his camera upon from the ground-up. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with Anderson’s work should know what they’re in for by now: monotone line deliveries; static, meticulously composed tableaux, often incorporating background action so tightly organized that the very rigidity becomes a source of humour; a tone which aims to balance droll slapstick with melancholic longing; the use of illustrations to provide background detail or introduce new sections of the film; head-on close-ups; bird’s eye view shots which lavish attention on gaudy props.
So ostentatious is Anderson’s visual style that he has become one of the most heavily emulated, parodied, and referenced filmmakers in recent memory…”
Indeed, so ostentatious is Anderson’s visual style that he has become one of the most heavily emulated, parodied, and referenced filmmakers in recent memory, inspiring countless Indiewood knock-offs, commercials, SNL sketches, internet skits, and even a Family Guy episode. It would be unfair to judge Anderson based on the quality (or lack thereof) of his imitators, just as it would be unjust to disparage him for having an aesthetic so distinctive that his authorial signature be easily identified based on a single frame. What Anderson can be criticized for, however, is settling so firmly within an aesthetic groove so early into his career that he no longer demonstrates the desire to challenge himself or his fanbase in any significant way. On the contrary, in recent years Anderson has grown increasingly self-conscious about his own aesthetic tics and the public’s perception of them: The Darjeeling Limited begins with a painful gag about regular Anderson player Bill Murray failing to catch the titular train and, therefore, missing out on being in the movie; The Fantastic Mr. Fox stops dead in its tracks to make way for a cameo from Jarvis Cocker in stop-motion form, a self-satisfied in-joke directed at the adults in the audience who presumably find the very idea of Anderson helming a children’s film to be hilariously out-of-character; and let us not forget Anderson’s American Express commercial, in which the director plays a caricature of himself as he nonchalantly deals with a series of absurd obstacles while walking from one end of his set to the other (the entire ad, naturally, is captured in a single, typically Andersonian lateral panning shot).
I’ve always considered there to be something fairly cynical and calculating about Anderson’s style, once one scratches beneath the neatly manicured surface, which only becomes more egregious as the filmmaker increasingly leans into elements of self-parody and relies on ironic detachment to provide a permanent buffer against criticism. The roots of the control-freak sensibility that Anderson would develop later in his career were certainly present in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, but those films still allow space for spontaneity and surprise. It also helps that these movies depict youthful dreamers stubbornly committed to controlling every single aspect of their immediate environment – these myopic, self-constructed bubbles are then gradually undermined, and the protagonists are forced to encounter the messiness and the unpredictability of the outside world. Anderson’s filmmaking began to grow frustratingly disconnected with reality when he transformed the entire city of New York into a giant dollhouse with The Royal Tenenbaums – a feature which paints a whimsical sanitized portrait of its setting while steadfastly refusing to address poverty, racial oppression, violent crime, corruption, or any of the other social problems that plagued the city at the turn of the century. The limitations of Anderson’s worldview were made even more painfully clear in The Darjeeling Limited, a deeply culturally insensitive film which reduces India to a quirky backdrop against which the tedious rivalries between three white American brothers play out. Moonrise Kingdom takes place in New England during the mid-1960s, though the only indicators of time and place come in the form of picture books, costumes, records and other pop cultural ephemera – the film’s reluctance to mention Vietnam, civil rights struggles, and the Cold War may be rationalized by pointing to Moonrise Kingdom’s emphasis on children, but surely these epochal cultural events would play a central role in the maturation and self-definition of its protagonists as they enter adolescence?
Less easy to justify is Anderson’s portrayal of the rise of fascism across 1930s Europe. The storybook framing devices of The Grand Budapest Hotel overtly announce Anderson’s intentions to address the dark history of the 20th century through the lens of allegorical reimagination, but seeing oblique references to the SS, concentration camps and ghettoization peppered throughout a fantastical caper picture leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Nazism is never mentioned explicitly, no real historical figures are directly spoken of, and the extent of the atrocities that the fascists forces are capable of is never communicated. In essence, Anderson is mobilizing recognizable iconography and signposts to flesh out a fantasy world which purports to be modelled on a real historical era but doesn’t quite resemble any place as it actually existed during any point in time. Anderson’s emphasis on foregrounding the fictionality of his creations, seen in this light, comes across as a lazy way of attempting to obscure the lack of rigour in his historical work. In this case, it struggles to conceal that Anderson simply lacks the ability to handle these grave themes with the requisite moral weight, and no genuine sense of threat is allowed to puncture the exquisite composition of his frames. Nazi surrogates appear as cartoon villains, sadistic oafs who carry with them a vague sense of menace, but – despite being referred to as ‘fascists’ at various points – never appear to subscribe to a coherent ideological system.
Perhaps there lies the kernel of a decent satirical idea in the concept of telling the story of Europe’s fall through the eyes of a man like Gustave H., an aristocrat so insular and superficial that he is completely blind to the escalations of tensions leading up to the war, and then, after his hotel has been occupied by the military, is appears to be disgusted by the perceived decline of Old World refinement and good taste than he is by the prospect of ethnic cleansing. This satirical point remains undeveloped, however, because Anderson’s humour is infuriatingly toothless – instead, the film is at pains to make the viewer sympathise with Gustave, framing him as a loveable fool whose commitment to preserving aristocratic traditions in a time of barbarity should be admired (Gustave may demonstrate no interest in combatting the fascist fervour sweeping the nation, but, just to reassure the audience that he’s a noble figure regardless, Anderson constantly reminds us that he is unconditionally kind to his lobby boy).
Like The Grand Budapest hotel, then, The French Dispatch sees Anderson filling his fairy tale vision of the past with figures who are clearly meant to signify actual people…. but he inserts enough distance between his textual signs and their real-world reference points that he expects us to excuse the aspects of his alternate history….”
Which brings us back to The French Dispatch, a film which is not quite as offensive as The Grand Budapest Hotel in its handling of historical fact, but which similarly reveals the infantility and disingenuousness at the core of Anderson’s artistic project. The film is enamoured with an adolescent notion of French-ness which revolves around fine pastries, wine, smoking, animated intellectual chatter in cafes, and antique bookstores. The opening segment of the film sets the tone: it take the form of a brief travelogue delivered by Sazerac as he cycles around the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, dressed in the stereotypical attire of black beret and cotton beret, introduces us to a series of Provençal sights: a shopping arcade; animated students debating in a bar; a street lined with pickpockets; a corner of the red-light district; a dirty underground station. As a scene-setter, it provides a woefully childish vision of France: no real-world history is invoked, the sites it introduces are all falsified simulacra, and there is no real indication of how Ennui operates as a functional community. Anderson, as is his wont, relies on irony to serve as an escape hatch, sending up his reporter by first having him fall down a manhole and then having him being pulled off his bicycle by a gang of unruly young choirboys. As with all the journalists in The French Dispatch, it’s difficult to determine just how seriously we’re supposed to take Sazerac. He is, at certain times, treated as an ill-informed fool who can barely stand up straight, yet he is also the source of information that we are clearly meant to absorb and invest in. Indeed, for a film which positions itself as a love letter to the halcyon days of radical print journalism, it doesn’t articulate a great deal of respect for the craft.
This is especially problematic when you consider that the three shorts which form the backbone of The French Dispatch were directly inspired by real pieces of reportage. The opening tale, ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ is loosely modelled on Calvin Tomkins’ profile of art lecturer Rosamond Bernier, while the painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) belongs to a fictionalized art movement named the ‘French Splatter-school Action-group’, a bizarre concoction of Anderson’s which draws upon elements of cubism, Tachisme and surrealism. The second story, ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’, centres on a thinly veiled stand-in for Mavis Gallant, whose New Yorker dispatches on the revolutionary movement in Paris in the late 60s are used as the basis for a tired pastiche of the French New Wave. The final story, ‘Equal in Paris’, transforms James Baldwin’s heart-wrenching autobiographical piece detailing his mistreatment at the hands of the French police as a young writer in Paris into a zany crime thriller which climaxes with a lengthy car chase.
Like The Grand Budapest hotel, then, The French Dispatch sees Anderson filling his fairy tale vision of the past with figures who are clearly meant to signify actual people, and incidents that are intended to conjure associations with actual historical events – but he inserts enough distance between his textual signs and their real-world reference points that he expects us to excuse the aspects of his alternate history that are wilfully over-simplified and puerile. Particularly grating is the film’s middle segment, in which Timothée Chalamet portrays Zeffirelli, a broadly drawn composite of a range of student activists, leftist academics, and French New Wave icons, as an unruly teen having an over-long temper tantrum. The segment features overt nods to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Philippe Garrel, and Louis Malle, yet, while those filmmakers engage with the multitude of complex political and sociological issues which animated the protests of the era (even when working in a somewhat satirical mode, as Godard does in La Chinoise and Masculin Féminin), Anderson is content to smugly thumb his nose at his naive straw men. Anderson is infatuated with the surface-level aesthetics of 60s counterculture, but he strips the stylistic signifiers he adopts of their ideological underpinnings. Anderson neglects to engage with class struggle, the Algerian War, the creeping authoritarianism ushered in by De Gaulle, police brutality, the corrosion of workers’ rights. Instead, his protagonist is driven solely by his libido. The primary objective Zefferelli hopes to achieve through his revolutionary activity is access to the girls’ dormitory, and he pursues this aim by spray-painting ‘the children are grumpy’ on vacant buildings around the city, playing chess matches against his rivals, and scribing an incoherent manifesto (which, as Gallant stand-in Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) points out, is full of spelling and grammatical errors). Some mild opposition to Zefferelli’s frivolous attitude comes in the form of fellow activist Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), who objects to Zefferelli’s relationship with an American journalist and his mindless consumption of pop music. Yet, this is treated as flirtatious squabbling, not a serious ideological conflict between factional groups – the friction between the two youngsters dissipates as soon as Krementz instructs them to “stop bickering, go make love”.
At 52, Anderson is now closer in age to Steve Zissou or Royal Tenenbaum than he is to Max Fischer. No longer a promising wunderkind, the filmmaker now has 10 features under his belt, multiple Academy Awards nominations, and is one of the increasingly dwindling number of American auteurs with the power to helmed studio-produced arthouse films on a grand scale with full creative control and a guaranteed wide international release. It’s startling, then, to consider just how little Anderson has matured over the course of his career. The French Dispatch is a film that constantly pulls its punches: it is not vicious or pointed enough in its humour to function as worthwhile parody of either French culture or American attitudes towards French culture, yet it is too flippant in its depiction of the Francophone world to truly comes across as a sincere paean. Anderson simply recycles cultural signposts, drains them of contextual meaning, and repurposes them as empty bric-a-brac within his collage-like compositions. The film’s intentional lack of affect serves no discernible purpose and bespeaks a lack of conviction on the part of the director that one would more readily expect from the output a newcomer, not an ostensibly seasoned auteur. Anderson is evidently not without talent, but he has continuously proven to be content to rest on his laurels – if he is to create truly impactful work, he must first push himself outside of his comfort zone – aesthetically, thematically, intellectually. The French Dispatch ultimately amounts to nothing more than hollow juvenilia, and we’re all getting too old for this kind of game, aren’t we?
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.