Archive for November 20, 2021

I see France

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2021 by dcairns

I thought I was going to miss THE FRENCH DISPATCH out of sluggishness but had a morning class at the Art College, filling in for someone else, so I dropped in on a matinee at the Cameo, where I hadn’t been since before Covid I guess.

This might not be a very interesting piece — the movie is a mixed bag, like everyone says. The short bits are OK, short enough not to be a problem, though when the movie attempts to do gags I found it unfunny in a way that hurt it — Owen Wilson crashing his moped was never amusing, always mistimed, and too CGI-fake to have slapstick appeal. When the movie is merely quirky it’s funny enough.

The three main chunks are: Benicio Del Toro as a criminally insane artist, in which Del Toro is droll, Lea Seydoux has the same daunting self-assurance I sensed when I met her at Telluride, and Adrien Brody is very, very good. Bonus Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler, Tilda Swinton (well-observed caricature, easier to take than her SNOWPIERCER grotesque); student riots with Timothee Chalomet and Frances McDormand, the long pointless episode everyone complains about; Jeffrey Wright as Wesworld’s answer to James Baldwin, profiling gourmand detective Mathieu Amalric and his chef, Steve Park — prime Wes Anderson, if you like Wes Anderson.

Anderson, asked about political content in his films, has said it might be nice to do politics the way DUNE does politics — imaginary politics. His films are hermetically sealed miniatures but increasingly detailed exercises in worldbuilding, so this makes a kind of sense — allowing the worlds to expand into the political sphere, but not letting in the oxygen of reality, which he perhaps would fade everything away like the fresh air corroding the unsealed frescos of Fellini’s ROMA. The problem with this is that DUNE has no real politics, it’s just a choice of dictators, benign or malign. Factions, not politics. The first stab at this in Anderson’s oeuvre, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, actually worked and was even moving, because the substitution of a Chaplinesque equivalent for Nazism was quite fitting — REAL fascism WOULD corrode a Wes joint, would be too toxic and acid, the paper-thin pretence of the ZZ initial instead of swastikas allows just enough distance from pain and tragedy for the comic-opera tone to take root.

But in THE FRENCH DISPATCH the denatured student riots are rendered silly, trivial and meaningless, and so is the episode. And, frankly, the behaviour of the French police has been fascistic enough during the historical period covered, that they might need a fictional alibi too. They work better in the third episode, where what holds it together is the amusing crime story, the really excellent perfs, the genuine emotion. Wright proves a transfiguring addition to the Wesverse — he doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Baldwin, which might be rather insulting, but works with a different timbre altogether, maybe a touch of Orson Welles? Just really pleasurable to watch. But Baldwin, as I understand his work, was concerned with the world, and making him a food critic in a dollhouse world is definitely robbing him of a lot. Maybe the experiment is to see how much that’s powerful is left when you do that. The “disputed passage” which Wright’s character cuts from his piece and Bill Murray’s editor reinstates, a beautiful scene played with Park (and it’s very encouraging to see that both actors are to return in Anderson’s next film), becomes, as Murray says, “the reason for writing it.” That kind of reason has sometimes seemed absent in W.A.’s precious productions. He’s wary of emotion (the French Dispatch’s office bears a No Crying sign), commitment, commentary — which makes the subject of journalism maybe an oddball, unpromising choice for him.

While the nested narratives of BUDAPEST worked well for his style, the discrete boxes of DISPATCH seem to overemphasise the airlessness and anxiety about meaning. And Anderson is perhaps not quite a brilliant enough writer to pastiche the varied literary styles he’s looking at: the narrators mostly sound the same. His nods to Tati and Tardi don’t quite get there either — Hulot’s house from MON ONCLE is reconstructed practically brick by brick, and just feels like plagiarism, and the animated section is fun but the artists can’t ink with Tardi’s wondrous fluidity — everything is clenched. (Just read that the actual inspiration was Tintin and Blake & Mortimer — the latter explains the stiffness.)

But the good bits are great. And, while Anderson repeats himself — he did better Tati pastiche in his little ad films — we get another cutaway diagram of a vessel, as in THE LIFE AQUATIC — he’s still adding to his toybox. I counted the following new elements: the varied aspect ratios of BUDAPEST are enhanced by b&w sections; tableaux vivants (which the classic Anderson shot is always verging towards anyway); theatrical lighting changes; the aforementioned animation insert, supposed to evoke a bandes dessinées version of the true events; more non-white faces than previous Andersons.

If I sound picky, it’s because Anderson’s work is very irresistible, except when it’s irresistible (as in, for me, for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, ISLE OF DOGS). This one didn’t wholly overcome my defences.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH stars Dr. Gonzo; Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Ancient One; Sabine Moreau; Marge Gunderson; Paul Atreides; Constance Bonacieux; Felix Leiter; Serge X.; Peter Venkman; Coy Harlingen; Orr; Principal Arthur Himbry; Partita Dupea; Zero; Dr. Astrov; Dr. King Schultz; Chéri; Cotton Weary; Max Schreck; Sheldon Mopes / Smoochy the Rhino; Lady Bird McPherson; Kitty Tyler / Dahlia; Gag Halfrunt (uncredited); Rock Bork; Jack Goodman; and the voice of Morticia Addams.