The French Dispatch: Empty All the Way Down

Usually, it’s easy to review a Wes Anderson film. Really, it’s as simple as employing a flow-chart: do you like Wes Anderson films? If yes, you will like this one, now read on for a breakdown of what flavour of Wes this is; if no, you will not like this movie. This time, it is not so simple. You see, I love Wes Anderson films. I’ve seen them all and have found things to love in each film (even the lesser ones), a whole host of them I completely adore. So, it is with a heavy heart that I admit: I hated The French Dispatch.

Here, Anderson takes us to a fictional French town where an American magazine is written, The French Dispatch. It is a portmanteau film, the bookends being the death of the editor-in-chief of the magazine (played by Bill Murray). He’s a man that loved his writers, but treated the rest of his staff horribly, and through this uneven indulgence ran his magazine into the ground — though this is sidestepped. There is a parable about the death of print here, a medium based on love, craft and obsession that will never be economically viable, but it seems forced and is prey to the overall artifice of this empty film. Really, this framing device is just an excuse to tie together some disparate short films. Each is themed after a section of the magazine and supposedly covers an article in an edition. We have a cycling piece (a travel piece, really); an arts piece; a political piece (chronicling a youth uprising) and finally a gastronomical piece, that is actually a true crime piece. Each section is partly narrated by the fictional writer of the article, characters in their own right in the film, and is presented as an eclectic mix of colour palettes, aspect ratios and directorial decisions. It is all very, very fancy.

The French Dispatch. Dir. Wes Anderson.

Frustratingly, the film is nothing but pastiche. It hides behind a veneer of homage but is too obsessed with its own craft, and its own fictional world, that it never resonates externally. On paper, it is an ode to the New Yorker, journalism, French cinema and a whole host of famous writers (there’s even a dedication to them at the end). There’s even something pleasing about the idea of a New Yorker style editorial magazine writing from a French town for a Kansas audience. It is a titter-worthy juxtaposition but is endearing, reflecting what the film thinks it is: a love letter to a country known through foreign eyes, and through cinema, from an American. This would put it of a piece with a lot of Anderson’s work, which often manages to glean real emotion and humanity by building towards, or around, tender cores. Yes, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is an arch production of his trademark symmetry, but it is also an achingly beautiful film about what it is like to be a child in a world of adults. Even The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), though a delightful romp, is built around melancholy. The French Dispatch has no human core. It is a hollow thing, a filmic machine made with upmost precision that just tells you a few hyperbolic stories in flashy fashion.

It is completely scattershot though, and tiresomely formal. This focus on stories in stories pushes the viewer further and further away. Each narrative is stylised and hyperbolic, an ode perhaps to the art of poetic and imaginative writing, but this approach fails massively. Wes Anderson films already exist in hyperrealities, the office of The French Dispatch itself already feels like a toy, a quaint thing, and from there we dive into further layers of fictionality and artifice. The already hyperbolised becomes exaggerated to the point of apathy, with no central core or emotional aspect to keep a viewer in tow. Really, it is all just too much. We keep switching aspect ratios, we go from colour, to black and white, to animation, to extended pastiche, to stage-shows, to lectures. It is a precisely made Russian Doll but it is assembled and disassembled with abandon. There is craft here, everything is meticulous and formally beautiful, but the craft is doing nothing. Our first story is a fictionalised cycle tour around the town full of kitsch and uncomfortably handled allusions to sex-work and a mortality rate. We are being introduced to our town and already it is nonsense, and overly affected nonsense at that. The narration is so consciously overwritten (this is true throughout the film), so relentlessly verbose, that it becomes numbing. This is combined with busy visuals where things go into split screen, or different text is appearing on the frame, or we have some overly complex visual setup. It is all too much.

This opening story is brief, thankfully, and has a few nice visual gags. There are some open homages to Jacques Tati, which establish an ongoing motif of alluding to a golden age of French Cinema. The problem is, as Anderson borrows from Melville, Truffaut, Godard (to an extent) and more, he doesn’t capture the soul of those works. This is most apparent in the youth in rebellion segment, one with clear connection points to the work of Truffaut and Godard. It is a politicised sequence about an educated, intellectual youth realising their disaffection, and refining their anti-imperialist sentiments, so they can overthrow a bourgeoise system. It is in line with French cinema of the ’60s and often filmed in a way that references that style, with production design that plays into this. But, those films meant something. They came out of an actual want for change. They were human or at least heartfelt. Even when overly polemical and annoying, there was an intent. This Wes Anderson sequence means nothing. It is framed via a reporter, Frances McDormand, and adopts her supposed journalistic neutrality. It is also all constructed as a sardonic joke. Rebellion is the punchline here, accentuated by playful gags and consistent irony. It doesn’t capture anything human or meaningful, it is protest as aesthetic and also wants to mock the thing it is presenting. It also codes its characters, though they are often acted by adults, as teenagers (as children) and then sexualises them. We also have a referenced sexual relationship between McDormand and Timothée Chalamet’s revolutionary teen that causes more discomfort.

The French Dispatch. Dir. Wes Anderson.

Another segment is about modern art, and it plays just like ‘old person makes jokes about modern art’ for its runtime, interspersed with suspect representation of prisoners and those suffering due to mental ill-health. It is built around tropes of ‘tortured artists’ and ‘muses’ and ‘madness’ as inspiration; it is all hollow and irritating. The whole sequence goes on for far too long, has no real meaning and is a nice microcosm for the film’s overall issues. Yes, it looks nice, but nothing resonates and nothing fits together. This story has no relevance to the film as a whole and is not independently engaging. And we’re not even at the film’s nadir, yet. That would be an extended homage to James Baldwin that is completely tone deaf. In it, Jeffrey Wright plays the jouranlist, told through yet another framing device of him being on a talk show telling his story. The setup is like the iconic James Baldwin interview shows you will have seen and Wright, who is very good in the role, is telling a story that would become a famous article. This story is nominally a food piece, but is actually a true crime tale about a kidnapping that Wright’s character happened to get caught up in. So, we follow him and the story, while we also follow him telling the story. It is structurally clever, in a technical sense, but yet another overwhelming affectation in a film full of these stylisations. The issue here is the content itself. The character is written as a crude caricature of Baldwin, saying things that you can’t imagine Baldwin saying and even including a couple of homophobic moments. In this sequence we have clear cinematic references to Melville, perhaps Bresson too, but, as always in this film, the problem is Wes Anderson’s style and direction.

The film is just quaint. His films are always quaint. This quaintness is usually in concert with the subject matter, but here the chosen stories do not fit. This quaint take on Baldwin is reductive and part way through it we have a quaint presentation of police brutality. The film keeps on taking on bleak and politicised subject matters but does so with consistent, insufferable irony. This film is purely an aesthetic thing, it exists only to be affected and arch. It is fascinating as something based around journalism as the obsession seems to be about the form of this medium, not the content. Here, Wes Anderson is the editor not the writer. He is the curator of stories, the one that makes them sellable and that wrangles them into a homogenous thing. He is interested in the magazine as a physical object, as ephemera, not in the human stories contained within. It is an homage to the presentation of the written word, to the way stories are packaged and sold, but not to the stories themselves and the resonance they have. It is allusion, inside allusion, inside allusion, but, really, it is perpetual emptiness. It is an off-putting, gratingly ironic portrait of falsity that offers nothing outside of empty aesthetic pleasure.

4/10

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