Wes Anderson’s new film “The French Dispatch” once again provoked the narrative that the director — for all his stylization and obvious skill — has nothing much to offer when you get down to critiquing him.
Even though there’s real weight to facets of this critique, Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” is a must-watch filled with both substance and flair, though still haunted by Anderson’s non-politics.
The film is a frame narrative centered around a magazine in a French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. The issue of this magazine consists first of an obituary for its own editor-in-chief, a small introduction to the town and then three feature stories that the movie takes place in.
The first feature is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a story told in the form of a speech given by its writer about a famous, transgressive painter. Second, there is “Revisions to a Manifesto” about a historical student protest. Finally, there is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” told through the typographic memory of its writer on a TV show, with the story concerning the world’s finest chef in a form called “police cooking.”
Thematically, the film excels in its most quiet moments. During the last feature, the writer Roebuck Wright, gifted with perfect memory, is asked why he focuses on food so much. To this he monologues, portraying slight vulnerability. He hesitates, because it is revealed that he’s never been asked the question. He eventually answers the question in a beautiful, quiet aside about the streets and cafes of the village.
Anderson’s films tend to always have a certain kind of emotional distance to them. So much so that the recurring feeling of distance was included as part of the gag in moments throughout various films. This part of Anderson’s filmmaking is not eliminated in “The French Dispatch.” After revealing the basis of his obsession with food and how it connects him to a society he feels alienated from, Wright continues his electric account of the feature. But it’s a dimension to the director which can sometimes be lost in other works.
These analyses and little turns of phrase dot the landscape of the film and make the film worth the price of admission alone.
“The French Dispatch” spared no room in its expansive cast, to the extent that the movie can functionally be used as a Wikipedia page for all 21st century actors and actresses: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton and Léa Seydoux are just a few of the star-studded names headlining the film.
One might assume the sheer volume of stars distracts the film, but it never quite feels that way. Despite the recognizability of the cast list, it is no understatement to say that the camera is the most important part of the film.
Within the first few minutes of “The French Dispatch,” Anderson plays tremendously with his flat, storybook-esque frames. A waiter delivering food to his boss becomes a comedy spectacle as he moves in and out of the shot’s cartoonish scenery. Such spectacles are constant and unavoidable in the film and they never get old.
The film also leverages its framing to full effect. The act of writing is absolutely essential to the moment by moment of “The French Dispatch.” Subtitles for the interjected bits of French assume their own typography and layout on the screen. The journalists frequently take diversions, breaks and other such asides during their manic recounts.
For everything “The French Dispatch” and Anderson does right, it’s time to discuss the glaring flaws in both.
The most problematic part of the film comes with its middle story, likely the most important of the movie. It featured heavily in advertising and carries with it the signature track of the movie: a cover of the French classic “Aline.”
The feature, titled “Revisions to a Manifesto,” is the part of the film most openly influenced by the aesthetics of the French political moment known as May 68.
For the uninitiated, the time period known as May 68 was a leftist student protest in France beginning in 1968 that eventually became a widespread strike throughout the country.
The event was a turning point in the French left politically, and as a result influenced some of the most recognizable names in French cinema: Jean Luc-Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle are all major Anderson influences and were deeply concerned with the legacy of the strike.
The visual markers of that period are all there in Anderson’s work: the coffee houses, the hair, the jukeboxes and the dress. Everything down to the coats of the gendarmerie, their batons and shields, it all feels right. It feels like a representation of May 68 cinema.
Unfortunately, for all this value in representation, it’s less analysis and more Anderson’s own “Les Misérables,” complete with barricades and heroic deaths.
This is where claims to Anderson’s lackluster politics in film come full circle. For somebody who very clearly loves the aesthetic weight of May 68, he is completely unconcerned with its politics.
What makes this more frustrating is how ultimately indebted Anderson’s filmmaking is to the cinema of May 68. But, while those creators actively forced themselves to contend with the legacy of the strike through their work, Anderson ignores this with a shrug and a depth study.
It is through these streets in Ennui-sur-Blasé, their clear geography and weight and their transcendentally beautiful quiet moments, that the tragedy of its denizens emerges: they are trapped in the dream of their creator.