I see France

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.

12 Responses to “I see France”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Having recently taught BULWORTH in my course on satire, I must say I disagree with Wes Anderson completely when he says you must treat real politics entirely with allegory. Because Beatty’s satire is absolutely anchored in real-world politics of the late 90s (neoliberalism, over-policing, institutionalized racism, media campaigning) while imagining in its place the alternatives that in time became the political reality of the 2010s (Obama, Trump, Sanders).

    That said, I found The French Dispatch entertaining and funny. It’s not one of Wes Anderson’s best features but it has something. I found the last episode with the Police Chef the best as well.

    I think if there’s a political aspect to the film, it’s the fact that so much that defines French culture in this time comes from those who are outsiders or immigrants – Del Toro’s character is a Mexican painter in France, the French Dispatch is staffed by expats, Lyna Khoudri who plays Chalamet’s girlfriend is from Algeria likewise. And the finale with the Chef and Jeffrey’s Wright character (who’s essentially James Baldwin) brings that home.

    Wes Anderson’s portrayal of this era is cinephilic: Chalamet’s Zefferelli character is obviously a J-P Leaud homage from the Godard-Truffaut-Eustache films (I guess Louis Garrel, Leaud’s real-life godson has aged out of that bracket, and Chalamet kind of looks like an American clone of Garrel fils), and there’s a bit of Becker and Melville in the final section, and Jacques Tati throughout.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Why didn’t Wes cast Wally Shawn?

    The great cinematic poet of May 68 is Garrel pere in the film he made starring Garrel fils.

  3. Perhaps the police chief’s son ac companying him everywhere is a homage to Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres. The problem with Benicio Del Toro’s section, according to an art historian friend, is that no art dealer ever got convicted of tax fraud.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Bulworth” is Warren’s masterpiece. A “Mourning Work” for Robert Kennedy (who was a personal friend of his) the film identifies the “Bottom Line” of America politics like no other work of any kind.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    But fear not for the future it’s in the More Than Capable Hands of Warren and Annette’s transgender son.

  7. Yes, good call on Quais des Orfevres. It’s a touching element of the Clouzot film and does good service for Anderson.

    I don’t think Anderson was arguing that politics needed to be allegorized, just that for him, in his movies, only fictional politics would do, just as he has to invent cab companies and hotels and so on. He’s still wrong, but it’s true that the injection of too much reality into a whimsical story world can rock the foundations.

    Yes, Shawn should be in it (and in Anderson’s films generally. Also: Kevin Kline would fit) for his associations, though we do get Griffin Dunne, who is similarly connected (and it’s always nice to see him).

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Shawn was in Alan Rudolph’s THE MODERNS and MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE. Rudolph feels like a missing influence on Wes Anderson because he also likes fictionalizing (maybe not in Mrs. Parker but his other films certainly) and I think those Rudolph films were slightly on Anderson’s mind when he made this film. The Moderns is about American expatriates in France and John Lone gives an amazing performance as a creepy art dealer who’s both villainous and sympathetic.

    I will say that Anderson is right that if you aren’t jazzed about real-life politics, making your own allegorical take on that isn’t so bad. Since it does insert, via fiction, another perspective. Especially when you have the May’68 era which is both mythologized and overly castigated, so dealing it from a remote perspective of reading it from New Yorker isn’t a bad idea. One thing about The French Dispatch that’s weird/interesting is that The New Yorker is converted into a paper from Liberty Kansas while Paris is made into another small-town called Ennui-sur-Blase. I wonder if that’s the point that Anderson is making, the sense of being left out of these large events and re-centering it on the periphery.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Wally Shawn is a Multi-Purpose Multi-Tasker. Like the late, great(and much-missed) George Furth he has worked steadily as a character actor in everything from “Manhattan” to “Marriage Story” and “Gossip Girl” He is also one of America’s finest contemporary playwrights. Here’s one of this greatest works, starring (wait for it) Mike Nichols (!)

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Oh hell they’ve take it down! Wellhere’s Wally performing part of it.

    As Wally is the son of William Shawn, the editor of “The New Yorker” his relationship to what Wes Anderson is doing in “The French Dispatch” is rather clear

  11. I think Wes Anderson didn’t want to directly allude to The New Yorker but give his impression of it as a reader from Houston, Texas. Hence him setting it in Liberty Kansas and instead of Paris, its Ennui-sur-Blase. Likewise, using his stock company (Murray, Wilson, Brody, Swinton) to enmesh it as an extension of his previous films. Also there might be issues with schedules and so on.

    The movie is riffing off New Yorker as a cultural signifier and using that for its fiction (in the same way he used Stefan Zweig and Salinger before) rather than trying to express something about the real New Yorker magazine.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Tilda could play both Pauline Kael and Penelope Houston

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