Print the Legend
By Adam Nayman
The French Dispatch
Dir. Wes Anderson, U.S., Searchlight Pictures
The turning point for me with Wes Anderson came at the climax of 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, when the title character came face to face with the mythical Jaguar Shark he had spent so much of his life aquatic pursuing; what puzzled me was how such a perfectly tuned moment of pathos paradoxically made me turn away. “I wonder if he remembers me?” Murray’s raconteur-ish explorer asks not-so-rhetorically, as if he knows in his heart that the answer is no—as if Ahab had sought only Moby Dick’s acknowledgment and respect and not his blubbery hide. Clustered around their Captain in the cramped cabin of their bespoke submersible, Zissou’s crew registers his melancholy and begin a laying on of hands that proceeds in sync to the neo-orchestral swell of Sigur Rós. Between the symphonic precision of the staging and the potency of Murray’s screen persona—the weather-beaten weariness that made him an axiomatic presence in Anderson’s cinema —it’d take a heart of stone not to cry.
I did cry. And long after the memories of other movies have faded, I recall resenting myself and Anderson in tandem for this sincere and involuntary response, because up to that point, I’d found The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to be a laborious, heavy-spirited, thoroughly demoralizing drag, including and especially the idea that its cantankerous caricature of a protagonist was a plausible candidate for transcendence. Chalk some of this skepticism up to a number of external factors, chief among them the disproportionate importance and expectation that Maestro Fresh Wes held for twenty-something cinephiles at the turn of the 21st century, leveraged against a desire, however unconscious, to break with upper-middlebrow consensus and get ahead of the curve on renouncing some false idols (see also: pitching my first ever piece to a prestigious film journal as a hitjob on Kill Bill). Or chalk it up to the things that sometimes go into having a bad night at the movies. Or chalk it up to me being too inside my own head. But mostly, I had the sinking feeling that the Jaguar Shark encounter wasn’t earned in the same way as Ben Stiller’s battered conciliation at the close of The Royal Tenenbaums (“it’s been a rough year, Dad”)—and even worse, that the mechanical, inorganic emotionalism of this new, ornately ostentatious film rendered me retrospectively distrustful of the predecessors that meant so much to me. I wondered, then and now: did I really remember them at all?
Seventeen years, six features, and an increasingly insufferable number of online discourse cycles later, Wes Anderson is more or less in the same place he was circa The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and so am I with regard to his output. I don’t quite trust his movies, and I don’t quite trust myself as to why, and I don’t really write about them. Consider this, then, an attempt to break the cycle, and maybe also to break through an ambivalence about an artist almost always discussed in love-him-or-hate-him terms, partially as a byproduct of his own stubborn distinctiveness (his movies must be met on their own terms, which tends to rile up haters) and partially because the number of stubbornly distinctive filmmakers with enough industry clout to command healthy budgets and wide releases has dwindled to near-extinction levels (The French Dispatch grossed $25,000 per screen upon release, a pandemic-era record belying the self-fulfilling prophecies of Searchlight head Frank Rodriguez that movies of this sort face a guaranteed loss of box office).
So, circularity, stasis, and a certain, refined sense of stagnation as a state of tarnished grace—all are very much a facet of Anderson’s aesthetic and sensibility, with characters trapped in variably self-insulating and self-destructive loops of passivity, inaction, and age-inappropriate behavior. Among his memorable creations are a teenage prodigy in a doomed rush to grow up (Rushmore); adult failsons clinging to their childhood ambitions (and wardrobes) like life preservers (The Royal Tenenbaums); congenital carnivores contemplating the civilizing instincts and comforts of middle age (Fantastic Mr. Fox); and scions of Old World politesse and dignity trying to hold the moral (and epicurean) high ground as geopolitical tectonics shift violently beneath their feet (The Grand Budapest Hotel, for what it’s worth my least favorite of Anderson’s movies even as it’s been held up by some very wise commentators as his best). If change is not exactly the enemy in Anderson’s cinematic universe, it is, at least, a locus of considerable anxiety, which begs the question of whether the director’s steadfast formalism, at once instantly recognizable and impervious to imitation (or parody, SNL included), is an aging wunderkind’s beautifully brocaded security blanket.
There is, undeniably, something cozy about seeing those familiar Futura fonts all over the opening credits of The French Dispatch, an auteurist calling card on par with the white-on-black typography of Woody Allen or John Carpenter’s love of Albertus. Here, matters of layout and design are not merely decorative but enfolded into the drama, situation, and anguished, out-of-timeliness of a movie already widely (and correctly) interpreted as a paean to the glory days of (one very rarefied form of) print journalism. In imagining the mythical, comically misbegotten history of a fictitious American expatriate publication emanating from soggy “Ennui-sur-Blasé,” but subsidized by funds based in Liberty, Kansas, Anderson not only gets to mine a rich, Transatlantic dialectic between different countries and cultures—between, as I dutifully explain a pretty good conceptual joke, states of ennui and liberty—but also to do something genuinely novel with structure and presentation. In the past, Anderson’s movies have digressed into explicitly two-dimension storytelling, propelled by the flipping pages of scrapbooks, storybooks, or magazine catalogues; he may be responsible for more close-ups of stationary than any other American director, living or dead. But with The French Dispatch, Anderson’s imagined a movie that unfolds as an actual issue of a magazine, separated into discreet sections—editor’s note; masthead; op-ed; feature pieces; photo spreads, etc.—and mobilized this concept to tell a series of stories in miniature, anthology-style, which could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment that he is often at his best when things get episodic, but also serves his increasingly panoramic ambitions as the only true Internationalist of the cohort dubbed by early patron Armond White as “The New American Eccentrics.”
The America that Anderson makes eccentric stretches from his native Texas to East Coast strongholds in New England and New York—all flattened out and remade in the director’s fastidious image. The little we see in The French Dispatch of Liberty, Kansas, is similarly abstracted—a modern art gallery plunked down in the middle of a cornfield, housing a priceless (and expensively imported) series of French frescoes in a sight gag suggesting the bluntest and most absurd form of cultural exchange. For the most part, though, Anderson gives us ugly-beautiful Americans—mostly played by movie stars of a certain wattage and vintage (Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, etc.), all taking orders from Bill Murray’s irascible, Midwestern aesthete-editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr.—as observers in a foreign land, limning the relationship between their hard-driving, get-me-rewrite professionalism and the stranger-than-fiction vignettes they honor through that reportage. These include an incarcerated artist spurring a bidding war amongst the intelligentsia; an urban student uprising erected at the intersection of revolutionary ideology and teenage lust; and a celebrity kidnapping defused by the contributions of a brilliant and ultimately self-sacrificing police chef as recounted by a writer caught up in the excitement.
Life, wrote Michel Ciment, is full of homages to Jacques Tati, and so is The French Dispatch; in a wonderfully droll opening salvo styled as a short-form travelogue by the magazine’s resident local beat writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), we see Ennui springing magically to life in the span of a swift, clouded-over sunrise: the imagery is pure, sweet, slapstick—Anderson enjoying playtime. The first overt hints that the filmmaker is up to something more than Provençal pastiche come in the way that Sazerac’s guided-tour-by-bicycle focuses on human and architectural detritus and ruin—i.e., old buildings and whores (though no politicians)—and exults in the allure of decay, the pungency of a place where bodies are routinely fished face-down out of the river and Catholic schoolboys form roving, marauding hordes in the streets. It’s all in good fun, and, as a scene-setter, it’s extremely funny, serving, like any effective front-of-book content, to whet our appetites for the impending parade of longform reflections.
The three major episodes in The French Dispatch are of roughly equivalent length, weight, and quality, although to be honest I only really liked the first one, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” about the life-sentenced painter sublimating murderous rage beneath a preternatural abstract expressionist technique whose ultimate value—as personal catharsis, gallery property, and, crucially, a mode of seducing his own muse-amanuensis (who also happens to be his jailer)— becomes a source of debate tied to another, admirably urgent discourse: the separation of the artist and his art when the former proves too intolerable or the latter too beguiling to be soiled by incompatible biographical realities. Not only is the set-up that Benicio Del Toro’s autodidact genius Moses Rosenthaler is serving a life sentence for decapitating a couple of barroom bullies disarmingly grave, but the characters who bounce off his pent-up reserve are smartly conceived and vivid, chiefly Adrien Brody’s white-collar-crook turned art-world broker, whose recognition of his fellow inmate’s gift suggests an eye for beauty belied by his profit-motivated schemes, and Léa Seydoux as Moses’s model, introduced fully nude and on a pedestal but mostly armored behind the kind of solid, tactile, high-end-Halloween party costume (brass buttons, black baton) that Anderson typically uses to signal characters trying to suppress messy, irreconcilable desires.
The subject of “The Concrete Masterpiece” is taste, and how while having it is no substitute for genius, it can assist genius in finding an audience vast and worthy enough of it. As wryly as Anderson spoofs Brody’s tastemaker and the Rosamund Bernier-ish art history historian (Tilda Swinton) who serves as the episode’s narrator (and French Dispatch byline), he has obvious affection for their culture-vulture scavenging and mutual belief that beauty, however subjectively assessed, is indeed concrete—Rosenthaler’s frescoes, carved into the walls of his cell in defiance of their easy export or sale, are only Rorschachs in terms of meaning and interpretation, not value. That these rather abstract ideas get dramatized and ultimately resolved in the form of a sort of action movie—a violent prison uprising rendered in monochrome Mannequin Challenge-style friezes—is in keeping with Anderson’s tendency to punctuate his diorama-style movies with chaotic throwdowns or chase sequences, an equation duly repeated in “Revisions to a Manifesto,” with its faux-May-68 snapshots of black-and-white barricades and bullets, and “The Private Dining Room of the Commissioner,” which is framed (humorously) as an eidetic talk-show guest’s reverie, gets so frenetic in the home stretch, with shoot-outs and showdowns, that it actually transforms into a minimalist, pedal-to-metal cartoon.
If the simple apprehension of a solid underlying structure—and admiration for the architect’s subtle, playful means of wringing just-so variations upon and within it—were all that were required to make a movie a Concrete Masterpiece, The French Dispatch would stand up just fine: there’s nothing that can be perceived and reported about its beautifully tooled motifs and moveable feast of gourmet leftovers (nods to Tati, Lubitsch, Wallace Shawn, Jean-Luc Godard, H. L. Mencken, and on and on) that its maker doesn’t already know. And yet I was struck by the same experience of diminishing returns, not only about Anderson’s whole filmography—whose earlier entries benefitted from a real and unrepeatable element of surprise, and of endearing precocity—but also, within that aforementioned airtight structure. Not only does each episode build from an eccentric, pressurized situation into a fugue state of crazed, lethal chaos ( the increasingly vocal online contingent that hates Timothée Chalamet will be happy to know his underage libertine bites it hard), but they all strive, like clockwork a l’orange, for the same shivery metaphysics as the end of The Life Aquatic—for short, devastating exchanges that bottle their respective, perfumed narratives while also spritzing them outward into an ephemeral realm.
They don’t get there, or at least, they didn’t for me, even and especially not the carefully jerry-rigged coda of “The Dining Room of the Commissioner,” which unites Stephen Park’s master chef Nescaffier and the James Baldwin manqué Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in a moment of commiseration over the former’s ingesting of some uniquely delectable poison: the meal that killed him was also the best thing he ever made. We see this exchange only after it’s been reinserted in Roebuck’s story by Howitzer, who recognizes his correspondent’s private reasons for excising it but insists on its inclusion, a testament to his editorial genius (and tender feelings for his outsider correspondent) that might reflect Anderson’s newfound identification with Murray—23 years after casting his lot with Max Fischer. Ostensibly, The French Dispatch unfolds as a eulogy for a publication defined by its founder’s micromanagement, which in turn is shown—or, unfortunately, told, to us, unambiguously and uninterestingly, through the halcyon, anecdotal nostalgia of every single one of its characters—to have been a smokescreen for genuine generosity. Anderson does love his uncompromising old coots. What’s less clear is whether a movie so committed to placing everything in italics—to indicating how it’s meant to be read, and in what tone, and to what end—can communicate real, fragile melancholy about memory, obsolescence, and transience, or is simply a lucid, bemused testimonial to its own sense of accomplishment, a poem that’s really just a blueprint.