Bitesize Reviews: The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson

Film poster for 'The French Dispatch' featuring a collage of images of people layered against a turquoise background.

An uneasy mix of Francophilia and ‘in the know’ references

As we entered November 2021, I hadn’t been to the cinema since January 2020. The last movie I watched in the cinema was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and that felt like a million years ago. Between cinemas being closed and me not yet being fully vaccinated (thankfully I am now, and have my booster coming up soon), it just didn’t feel sensible to go to the cinema much. Pair that with the fact that most of the big movie releases were delayed, and there just wasn’t much motivation to head out the cinema.

But in November that all changed, with things opening up and my vaccination status in the green, and I’ve been to the cinema more times now than in the last probably three years. I don’t tend to feel I have that much unique to say about movies in all honesty – it’s a voice and medium I haven’t really honed my writing on, and it’s not been something I’ve explored in great detail in the past. Having now watched so many in such short succession however, I do feel something of an urge to write about them, the experience of cinema, and what I’ve taken away from each movie. So this is the first in what will probably be a short series of snippet reviews, with my major and minor takeaways from each film – just the things that struck me as I watched. Read on if you’re interested to hear more, and I’d really love to hear about your own cinema-going experiences in the comments below – whether or not you happen to agree with me about the film.

Same cast, same vibe

I know it’s easy to dismiss Wes Anderson films as kind of all the same – the same actors turn up time and time again, the aesthetic is so finely-tuned as to have become a visual shorthand, and the stories often share a sense of searching for the self. However for the most part I think each of his films has its own ‘vibe’, there is something unique about each one, regardless of its similarities. That should have been even more the case with The French Dispatch, given that it is an anthology film. However each one struck me as bizarrely similar. Though each story was on paper quite different, the characters were oddly interchangeable. You could put this down to a sense of narrative unity perhaps, but I felt that each character or story was just not given enough time to be truly developed. I can’t fault any of the actors for this – each of them is doing exactly what is asked of them. But watching each chapter felt like reading a short story which had been too scrupulously edited. Given that the film is about writers, and each story is a journalist’s essay, one would expect them to have felt more ‘finished’.

Uncomfortably ‘in the know’

There’s something I find quite weird and disconcerting about the fact that the stories were modelled, sometimes loosely, sometimes closely, on the lives and works of real writers, critics, painters – in short, real people. This felt elitist in that there was a whole layer of the film you simply missed if you didn’t know the references (textual, visual and broadly cultural), but also weird in the sense of almost pastiching, albeit lovingly, their work. If you love these authors so much, why not actually adapt their own words, instead of inventing new words for them? The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, the eponymous publication, is based on The New Yorker, but Anderson has taken the intriguing reality and mixed it with his usual Francophilia, turning the dial up to 11. There is something at best uncanny and at worst morbid or even mawkish and arrogant about creating a fake version of James Baldwin, and imagining that you can write as well as him.

On the edge of problematic

As with the point above, there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that makes me uncomfortable about the depiction of women in Anderson’s films. This has often been the case – his women are there to serve the narratives of his male characters, and are rarely (even in the case of his most famous and iconic female character, Margot Tenenbaum) fleshed out as fully as their male counterparts. Several of the stories ostensibly centre on female characters, but in each, even where they are the writer, they are somehow left on the side-lines. Lea Seydoux is literally playing the artist’s muse, that most historic of tropes, and even Frances McDormand’s journalist is strangely missing from a story seemingly about her falling in love with the subject of her article – Timothee Chalamet’s possibly misguided, definitely endearing revolutionary. Lyna Khoudri’s Juliette could have been one of the most interesting characters, exploring the tensions of compromise and preservation of principles in the face of political reality and human emotions, and yet she is treated like a child, whereas the male character is lauded as a hero for actions no greater or more profound. Even Saoirse Ronan’s brief appearance is marked by this – her exchanges with the boy character (an actual child) are characterised by that strangely 19th century attitude of little boys still being more clever and having more agency than grown women.

As I say, there’s nothing flagrantly sexist about the treatment of women in these stories, but they just feel as if Anderson is incapable of thinking about or writing women in the same way he does men – as if he fails to understand that we are human too, with rich internal lives like those of his male characters. The same might perhaps be said of his treatment of people of colour, if there were only more ground to test this. His characters, or at least those who are given lines, are predominantly white, and where they are not, their lives are rarely explored. The one exception is Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck White, who is undoubtedly the best written and most insightful character in the film, although one feels this is perhaps due more to the influence of the writers he was based on than Anderson’s own skill.

Final thoughts

You by now have probably guessed that I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I thought I would. It was quite a long-awaited film, and some of the storylines teased sounded intriguing enough that my hopes had been raised. However there’s no denying that my expectations were not met – I found myself slightly at sea in a jumble of references and characters hinted at rather than developed. I’ll likely give this one a second viewing to see if I like it more in time, but for now, it’s not won me over. It feels like a film my someone who desperately wants to be French, aimed at people who would like to have seen French films but haven’t got the time. All in all, there is so much potential in this little collection of stories, but for now, they’re better left with the editor.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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