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The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021)
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an ongoing multimedia project by John Koenig that archives original neologisms for universal but heretofore undefined subjective sensations, coined the term “anemoia” to describe nostalgia for a time you’ve never experienced. Surely Wes Anderson qualifies as world cinema’s most anemoic auteur, cramming each frame with loving allusions to the periods and personages that fill him with regret for not having known them firsthand. His previous live-action feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, whisked us through the make-believe central European nation of Zubrowka, its old-world charm threatened by encroaching fascists and changing mores. Now his latest effort pays homage to The New Yorker magazine (here rechristened The French Dispatch), a self-styled institution whose bone-dry humor, aesthetic consistency, grammatical precision, and known-commodity cultural status make it the director’s literary analogue.
For this anemoic critic who runs hot and cold on Anderson, the question is not why he persists in indulging his fetishes filmafter film (the prerogative and basic criterion of an auteur), but why a body of work obviously born out of love and longing is so cold to the touch. I think it’s because his brand of nostalgia is so specialized and object-centric that it doesn’t invite ready fellowship, and seldom elicits an unmitigated emotional response. Yet I’d stop short of calling him a shallow materialist who plays with bespoke dollhouses (the view of his most reactionary naysayers); indeed, I believe the opposite is true: he regards the past not merely as a simpler time when people dressed with panache and held fast to their idiosyncrasies, but as a world not unlike our own, as suffused with inequity and benighted belief systems as ours will appear to our heirs, and likewise verdant with grace and elegance particular to its moment. Rituals now outmoded and forgotten were executed with great care, and the objects Anderson treasures to a sometimes alienating degree embody both inherent beauty and utility in performing tasks no longer accomplishable: yesterday’s necessities are today’s museum pieces. (Indeed, as I write these words I gaze across the room at the VCR that’s served me adroitly since the early aughts; when it goes, it will take with it my access to many of the films that enticed me into this profession, itself now barely recognizable to past practitioners.)
Anderson might well feel a kinship to Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), onetime heir to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, who took his nose for news abroad and, over half a century, turned its drab Sunday supplement into the illustrious French Dispatch, based in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (a New Yorker cartoon caption if ever there was one). Like Anderson, Howitzer, despite his nonchalant air (his motto is “Make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”), maintains the brand, finances, and house style of the Dispatch so exactingly that upon his death, and in accordance with his wishes, it ceases publication. The film chronicles the stories comprising the last issue: a brief local travelogue (catnip for anyone who’s ever yearned to see Owen Wilson play Monsieur Hulot) and three feature articles, each introduced with a headline and corresponding page numbers.
The first and funniest, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” is staged as an art-history lecture by Dispatch staff writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), an abstract expressionist incarcerated for double homicide, paints a nude portrait of his prison-guard lover (Léa Seydoux), which catches the eye of an art dealer and fellow inmate (Adrien Brody). Though the oratorical structure facilitates the director’s often frustrating substitution of character detail for genuine character development, the episode’s clever denouement, involving an art show inside the prison, manages to skewer the culture industry and the role of commercial tastemakers like the Dispatch. Meanwhile, Anderson is building and cataloguing his imaginary world with each casual aside (a peripheral graphic tallies the bribing of guards, while a brief digression about “the Splatter School” evokes an entire artistic movement inspired by Rosenthaler’s brush).
The least successful segment, the faux-Godardian “Revisions to a Manifesto,” concerns a student riot reminiscent of the civil unrest that swept France in May of ’68, with veteran reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) becoming personally involved with the leader of the uprising (Timothée Chalamet). Here Anderson seems unclear on how seriously he wants us to take the revolt, which begins as a clash with college administration over male students’ access to the girls’ dormitories. Chalamet, with his gawky frame and fuzzy upper lip, looks more like Youth in Revolt’s Michael Cera than a firebrand however callow, and the expectation that we snicker at this haphazard revolution, presented in deadpan comedic fashion, while admiring the convictions and ideological purity (sans ideology) of the revolutionaries feels half-baked. It’s certainly less considered than the narrative framework, which interrupts the flashback with a flash-forward to a theatrical performance based on the events being depicted, featuring different actors and a new set of distancing devices. Like Max Fischer’s overreaching Vietnam play in Anderson’s Rushmore, it’s simply too much muchness.
In “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” the James Baldwin–inspired Roebuck Wright (a movie-stealing turn by the honey-toned Jeffrey Wright) demonstrates his “typographic memory” (i.e., photographic, but only for the printed word). Appearing on a 1970s-styled intellectual chat show, Wright recites verbatim a piece he’d written years earlier about a hostage situation resolved by a master chef. The details are less significant than the revelation, courtesy of Howitzer and a salvaged postscript, that sometimes a journalist (or a filmmaker) needs an editor to tell them what their own work is about and where its heartbeat lies. The French Dispatch’s heartbeat can be traced to this postscript: an eleventh-hour exchange between Wright, a gay expatriate warily seeking the love and acceptance he never found at home, and the Korean chef (Stephen Park) whose brilliance is taken for granted. They discuss “unfamiliar flavors,” delicately gesturing toward the kindnesses that have always eluded them.
Earlier, Wright admonishes the inquisitive talk-show host: “Never ask a man ‘why.’ It tightens a fellow up.” While this notion, too, might appeal to Anderson, who favors behavior over psychology, the immigrants’ poignant accord supplies the film’s deepest resonance. In the end, The French Dispatch resembles a typical issue of the gazette it so reveres: voiceover forming a sort of spoken-word editor’s letter, a wry comic sketch embracing local stereotypes, a knowing takedown of culture vultures and their commodified carrion, scattered political satire a generation past its sell-by date, and protracted prose with a poetic finish. Anderson’s style and his nostalgia are in full flower throughout: love his work or hate it, he clearly wrote it that way on purpose.
Steven Mears is the copy editor for Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment, Metrograph’s Journal, Bloodvine, and other publications.