October 2021

Arts & Letters

The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

By Shane Danielsen
Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

Picture the scene: one morning Wes Anderson wakes up. Silk pyjamas, monogrammed pillowcases. He has an idea – or perhaps not even that; a fancy. He sits at his desk (I’m thinking something Bauhaus, a Marcel Breuer or a Herbert Hirche) and writes a treatment – in longhand, natch, on exquisite stationery – and mails it off… and before long, millions of dollars are duly made available. Sets are constructed, costumes designed and sewn. Famous men and women call, declaring their eagerness to participate.

Its success is not guaranteed: the movie might work or it might not. Likewise its commercial fate – sometimes, for who knows what reason, audiences just don’t bite. Nevertheless, and whatever the outcome, the end result will be solely and unmistakably his: A Wes Anderson Film.

His latest, The French Dispatch (soon in cinemas and streaming on Disney+), premiered in Competition at Cannes in July. I found it not only maddening but actively inhospitable to human life. I hated it. I hate it. Even thinking about it puts me in a bad mood. And I’m by no means averse to Anderson’s cinema, per se: I adored Rushmore, enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox and loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. But this is a nadir. This is the kind of film you make other films to apologise for.

The title refers to a fictional magazine that is for all intents and purposes The New Yorker. But not the worthy if slightly predictable David Remnick editions of today, or even the trashy-but-fun Tina Brown years. No, this is pre Condé Nast, the New Yorker of Harold Ross and William Shawn: cloistered, prolix, a sort of midtown Gormenghast. An institution whose codes and hierarchies are obscure even to its staff, and utterly incomprehensible to outsiders.

The film is a portmanteau, with a structure that mimics the contents of a typical issue. It cycles briskly through a few vignettes – the “Talk of the Town” ­section – and then presents three short “feature pieces”. The first story, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, is about an incarcerated, possibly insane painter, and the beautiful prison guard who becomes first his muse and then his lover. Loosely based on an actual New Yorker feature – S.N. Behrman’s 1951 profile of the art dealer Joseph Duveen – it stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody and a mostly naked Léa Seydoux. The second, “Revisions to a Manifesto”, stars Frances McDormand and ­Timothée Chalamet, and is inspired by Mavis Gallant’s famous coverage of the 1968 Paris student riots. Finally, there’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”, with Jeffrey Wright as a food critic modelled, neither convincingly nor well, on James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling.

As that precis suggests, this may be the single most rarefied studio picture ever made, a US$25 million movie whose target demographic appears to consist solely of Upper East Side seventy-somethings. There’s a Ved Mehta joke, for Christ’s sake. (Old heads know.) If you’re a New Yorker fanboy, these shout-outs might evoke a wan smile; alternatively, if you know your French cinema, you could amuse yourself, at least for a little while, playing spot-the-film-reference. (For the record, I counted Truffaut, Godard, Jeans Becker et Vigo, and Jacques Demy et Tati.) But at the screening I attended in Cannes there was barely a chuckle, knowing or otherwise. The audience just sat there, battered into submission by its dense, rapid-fire dialogue, its hectic inconsequentiality, and the reek of its maker’s self-satisfaction.

How did we get to this? Bottle Rocket (1996) was a confident debut, a study of small-town grifters that’s now radically unlike anything else in his filmography. He followed it two years later with Rushmore, one of the key American films of its decade – and still, for me, his greatest achievement. A love letter to adolescent precocity and romantic yearning, it managed to combine Anderson’s mannerist inclinations with a remarkable generosity of spirit, in the process becoming the equal of the classic films that had inspired it.

After that, things got messy. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) conveyed all the diminishing returns of late-period Salinger and, nothing if not faithful to its inspiration, also displayed the first signs of Anderson’s own estrangement from terrestrial concerns. Two decades and seven features later, his entire aesthetic can be reduced to a handful of defining characteristics: (a) symmetrical compositions, (b) planimetric staging, (c) the Futura font and (d) Bill Murray. You can identify a Wes Anderson film from a single frame – this is, if nothing else, the very definition of an auteur – but the movies themselves are alarmingly inconsistent. At their best they’re charming fantasies, their comedy freighted with a tender melancholy. At their worst (Moonrise Kingdom, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) they seem little more than the showreel of an autistic set designer.

My main thought, as I sat through this one (and believe me, after the first 20 minutes my mind was off a-wandering), was that it marked the point at which Anderson’s storytelling most resembled that of graphic novelist Chris Ware – another idiosyncratic American artist with a penchant for maximal detail, symmetrical layouts and boxes-within-boxes narratives. But Ware’s best books – Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Quimby the Mouse – are anchored in the oceanic sadness of their creator’s world view. The French Dispatch, by contrast, is about as deep as a puddle, and untrammelled by the faintest hint of an actual human emotion.

Worse, it’s not funny; what jokes there are land with a distinct thud. (The fictional French town from which the Dispatch is published, for example, is called Ennui-sur-Blasé – the kind of gag you’d expect from a Little Britain sketch.) Born and raised in Texas, Anderson has lived in Paris for the past seven years, yet nothing of his adopted home town appears to have rubbed off on him; he has about the same feel for France as some hick in Lubbock demanding you call them Freedom fries. Some colleagues have expressed surprise at this. I am not surprised. So solipsistic is his universe, so self-contained and self-referential, that I expect he would be precisely the same were he based in Shenzhen, Kinshasa or Nantucket.

Other decisions are more irritating. Why cast Henry Winkler, one of the best and most beloved comic performers of our time, and give him so little to do? No memorable lines, no noteworthy bits of business… nothing at all, really, beyond the mere fact of his presence. Likewise Elisabeth Moss and Willem Dafoe, each too good an actor to be so ill-served by their director.

This is a kind of flex, of course – it’s Anderson’s way of saying, “Look, I can have anyone I want.” But it also implies something else: a fundamental lack of interest in collaboration, and what others might contribute to one’s work. Winkler’s comic energies (or Moss’s stern intensity) are not deployed for the simple reason that they’re not wanted. The sensibility here is entirely and unrelievedly the filmmaker’s own; no one else can bring anything of themselves to it, because there’s no space to accommodate any competing voices or behaviours, so totalising is its maker’s vision. And Anderson won’t allow even an instant of spontaneity, a single improvised line or unplanned gesture, because then the result might be fractionally less his own. His professed admiration for these actors only extends so far, it seems. And yet they keep coming back for more.

To be a player in the Wes Anderson repertory company, therefore, is to be little more than a kind of smartly dressed doll, one more design element to be positioned in the frame. (It’s the same complaint Ewan McGregor made after starring in Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book: “After a few days I realised that I was no more or less important, in any shot, than the pot plant I was standing next to.”) When an actor is the whole show, they can sometimes tilt the balance slightly in their direction, as Ralph Fiennes did in The Grand Budapest Hotel. That’s partly because Fiennes is a superb comic actor. (His line-reading scene with Alden Ehrenreich in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! – “Would that it were so simple…” – is the undisputed highlight of that movie.) But it’s also because, unlike most of his films, Budapest Hotel is not an ensemble piece but a character study.

There, as here, Anderson was working from a literary source: the works of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Yet the author’s genius overcame the filmmaker’s reflexive frivolity. Beneath the twee diorama staging, beneath the accreted detail and meticulous colour-coding, one sensed the presence of an actual, living world – and more, its imminent extinction. That film was about real things: war and separation, life and death. This one is about nothing. There are no characters here, no psychology, no engagement with anything real or meaningful. It manages to be simultaneously trivial and exhausting, like an unwanted dinner guest who won’t shut up. Why, you wonder, should you keep listening? Why should you care?

Speaking of guests: I was once told a very funny story about Anderson by one of his peers, about the then young director’s desire, at a social event in Los Angeles, to sit in one particular chair and no other. The other attendees watched the subsequent machinations play out with amusement and/or disbelief… but tellingly, his whim was indulged: by the time everyone took their seats, he was precisely where he wanted to be.

And so, almost from the start of his career, a pattern was set. Wesley wants, and the world dutifully reorders itself to oblige. That there may be a reciprocal benefit in meeting that world on its own terms, however, is a thought that appears to have occurred to him not at all.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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