The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s most overtly ‘historical’ film to date. It is also his most Wes Anderson.
Anderson’s longstanding tendency toward narrative detours and aesthetic pastiche finds its most fitting form in a kind of fragmented, nesting doll format, intended to resemble an issue of a magazine. We are presented with four vignettes, each of which plays out against the backdrop of a hyper-ambiguous place and time, a textually mediated ‘memory of Paris’—a series of reconstructed historical images and cinematic techniques so ostentatiously perfect that they can no longer be accused of even pretending to aspire to resemble the originals. The details are careless and yet precise, the scenes accumulating rapidly and meaninglessly like New Yorkers that keep arriving and piling up unread even though you’ve tried to cancel your subscription a million times. The tone, as always, is nostalgic, a little melancholy. Perhaps we could say that the film’s greatest accomplishment is that it reveals to us what’s been there all along, but with the content gutted, hollowed out, so that all that’s left is the mechanisms, the tropes, the styles—pure pastiche.
In serving as a kind of homage to all of Anderson’s previous films, The French Dispatch is also an elegy for the core elements of the broader cultural moment he represents. This somewhat expansive, murkily defined subculture can be roughly mapped onto the rise and fall of the figure of the ‘hipster’, with a particular emphasis on the quirkiness, new sincerity, apolitical nostalgia and voracious appetite for gentrification that the hipster came to be known for at some point in the early 2000s, as given particularly clear expression in the early work of Wes Anderson and author Dave Eggers.
In my own experience, 2012 marked the peak of my own fervour for everything Wes Anderson. I was fifteen, I had clouds painted on my bedroom ceiling, and everything was right in the world. I listened to Belle and Sebastian, Regina Spektor, the Velvet Underground, Alex Turner, Simon and Garfunkel. I staged photoshoots of the contents of my leather satchel on my bedroom floor, in imitation of Anderson’s signature bird’s eye view shots: my iPod Classic, two cigarettes in a tin with a lighter and matches, a battered copy of Franny and Zooey, my yearly Myki and a leather wallet shaped like an apple.
By 2014—the year Anderson released The Grand Budapest Hotel—the whole thing seemed to verge on near-total self-parody, its infinitely reproducible merchandise reaching a whole new level of mainstream appeal. Then again, perhaps we all have our own version of 2014, the year we aged out of Wes Anderson and stopped buying Penguin Classics that we didn’t want to read.
In terms of a collective cultural experience, we might chart this disenchantment over the course of a decade; from the 2004 release of Life Aquatic onwards, critics have tended to be more cynical about Anderson’s ‘twee’ aesthetic, his obsessive, repetitive treatment of themes of nostalgia and innocence, his striving for an ‘apolitical’ neutrality on themes of race, class and gender, and above all his devotion to a lost world that is overwhelmingly white, male and wealthy in the face of a changing landscape of cultural production that increasingly is demanding more. When called out on the homogeneity of this world and the racism displayed by its protagonists, Anderson will protest that clearly, the joke is intended to be on the characters themselves, the ones making the gaffes. But his love for them is so tangible, echoing Salinger’s devotion to his prodigal Glass family, that it’s difficult to take him seriously.
This, after all, is what Alexei Yurchak describes in What is Soviet Now? Identities, Legacies, Memories as the quintessential movement of new sincerity, a feat of remaining committed to one’s ideals, ‘while also being somewhat ironic about that commitment,’ and it is still the beating heart of Anderson’s artistic practice. Even as The French Dispatch verges on parody of Anderson’s style, his philosophy, his thematic concerns, it also doubles down on them, makes them more explicit. This is not so jarring in the first two vignettes as it is in the third. Where the first story follows the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson, and loosely based on the writer Joseph Mitchell), and the second introduces the imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler, whose career trajectory serves as a kind of frenetic commentary on the commodification of art, the third story is intended to be understood as an adaptation of Mavis Gallant’s diaries of the protests in Paris in May, 1968, with Gallant recast as Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand).
As Anderson himself admits in the introduction to the essay collection that accompanies the film, some of the complexity of Gallant’s journalism is inevitably lost in adaptation—there’s a ‘depth’ in Gallant’s account of May 68 that The French Dispatch glosses over. This is an understatement. Where Gallant holds the generosity of the students alongside the reality of their class relations and the impossibility of knowing their own history, Anderson trivialises their struggles and locates its nexus in sexual tension and naivety. Where Gallant is disgusted with the blind allegiance of her conservative peers with the police, Anderson has Krementz insist that the police are on the students’ side. Witnessing a conservative counter-protest, Gallant is acerbic in her contrasting the behaviour of the older generation unfavourably with that of their children:
[The students] were generous, and they were very brave. And when they shouted a slogan they were always asking for some sort of justice, usually for someone else. What is generous about “La police avec nous”? When an agent de police crosses to the opposite pavement, he is almost hysterically cheered.
Perhaps Anderson has forgotten that it was that the police backlash against the original student protests that galvanised workers to strike in solidarity, and sent ripples of dissent through communities all-too-familiar with harsh policing in Paris at the time. Gallant is keenly aware of state violence as a constant presence, a phenomenon which she recognises even the students might not be able to fully comprehend. This incomplete comprehension does not invalidate their struggles, however. Rather, it contextualises them, opening up ground for solidarity:
police have been beating people up for years, without the romanticism of barricades … if the Night of the Barricades had taken place in a working-class suburb like Saint-Denis we would have known no more about it.
Yet perhaps the greatest difference between Gallant and Krementz is that the former truly grieves what is ‘ugly and sad’ about the aftermath of the protests (‘there is nothing sadder than one fragment of a revolution’). Her grief anticipates the sense in which this fragment will embed itself like shrapnel in the late twentieth century, leaving a complex cultural legacy, but it is also a more concrete grief, anticipating outcomes that are closer to home, like the strengthening of the Gaullist position in the forthcoming French elections. Anderson, by contrast, has his teenage protagonists literally riding off into the sky on a motorbike, and any grief that Krementz is permitted to show stems from the fact that she gets kind of ‘lonely’ sometimes. McDormand deserves better, but even she can’t redeem this situation, and it’s hard not to feel that she plays the part with a kind of quiet, desperate resentment that isn’t entirely diegetic.
It’s possible to come away from this third vignette feeling that Anderson has performed a violent misreading of Gallant, taking her recollections of the questions posed to her by doubtful friends—was all this just a ‘change that had nothing to do with politics?’— as smug little answers to be delivered to the audience in a pastry box with a ribbon around it. Despite all its overt winks to Godard, more than anything else the vignette is reminiscent of the infamous 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, in which Jenner offers a Pepsi to a police officer at something resembling a Black Lives Matter protest, if such an event could conceivably be stripped of all meaningful content and replaced with red, blue and white peace signs, messages about love and entreaties to ‘join the conversation’.
In this sense, the segment serves as a parody of the worst of the hipster movement: a totally apolitical kind of Bohemianism, at the heart of which is nothing but the right kind of consumption and a penchant for indie folk music. Although Fredric Jameson’s charge of cinematic pastiche as ‘historical amnesia’ has been levied at Anderson’s films before, this is surely the clearest example of the ‘complacent play of historical allusion’ in his work to date. The narrative congeals around moments that are totally isolated from their contexts, engaging with them on the most surface and shallow level, noting only superficial correspondences between various historical periods and allowing for no point of reference for any given event. The French Dispatch has all the trademarks of what Jameson calls the ‘nostalgia film’: politically neutral, stylised images with no impulse towards historical documentation, flaunting the appropriation of cinematic styles, techniques and modes of interior décor for their own sake, their histories completely depoliticised.
We might contrast such a relationship to nostalgia with that of Walter Benjamin, who, like Anderson, was a collector of objects from the past, particularly books, fascinated by melancholy, and can be found retracing the footsteps of Baudelaire through Paris.
Walter Benjamin haunts the backstreets of Ennui, based as the film is on the Paris which was the site of Benjamin’s exile and the subject of so much of his greatest work, particularly the Arcades Project—which, like The French Dispatch, is a fragmented love story to the ‘memory of Paris’. But Benjamin treated the Parisian arcades as witnesses to the present, witnesses who might be persuaded to reveal their affinities to our present time. Accordingly, he is alert to state power, to ideology, and above all revolution, but in a very different sense than The French Dispatch.
For Benjamin, every revolution corresponds to or cites a previous one, even as it makes ‘the continuum of history explode’. For Anderson, the revolution begins with a boy who doesn’t want to grow up and ends with a hollow victory: the boy hero gets the girl, dies a martyr and has his poetry broadcast to the world. Benjamin’s historical materialism, as it is laid out in ‘Theses on a Philosophy of History’, is one in which ‘every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.’ Both Anderson and Benjamin are collectors of objects and memories, their gaze turned to the past—but where Benjamin’s objects acquire their ‘aura’ through the awareness of their material history, their legacy of ownership and networked cultural significations, Anderson’s are churned out fresh in the vintage object-manufacturing line, endlessly reproducible aesthetic objects whose histories are not only unknown but nonexistent. Anderson’s relationship to history can help us understand the decision to name the town ‘Ennui’, a lazy joke that stands in limply for any actual engagement with history or place.
If the third vignette is a total epitomisation of Anderson’s canon, the fourth vignette breaks from it in some crucial ways. The story is based loosely on the writing of James Baldwin and AJ Liebling, and is narrated by food writer Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright). To my knowledge, this is the first of Anderson’s stories to explicitly engage with race, sexuality and societal discrimination. In it, Anderson focuses again on characters who are ‘seeking something missing, missing something left behind’, but there is a shift in tone and subject matter. The living room is no longer vacuum-sealed against political concerns—the window is ajar, there is a tension in the air. There is something happening in the recognition that the aforementioned experience of ‘seeking’ might mean something specific for a Black, gay man in 1960s, and this recognition is made explicit by references to racism and homophobia. The threat looms large of Wright’s experience being flattened into that of the ‘expat’ figure more broadly, or even worse, the Holden Caulfield-esque outsider that we have come to know as the quintessential Anderson protagonist. Certainly, the moment of mutual understanding between Wright and Chef Nescaffier is forced to single-handedly contribute enough gravitas to justify the rest of the film, while being given only a few minutes of screen time.
Given Anderson’s not-so-subtle identification with Howitzer Jr throughout the film, there’s also something uncomfortable about the film’s sentimental lingering over the humble generosity of the editor in this vignette. In the New Yorker Radio Hour interview on The French Dispatch, David Remnick asks Jeffrey Wright if he finds ‘The French Dispatch to be political, and if so, to what degree—how?’ Wright responds that all art is political:
I think that the images that we put out, the stories that we put out have impact, and they have impact on a political level … even the most kind of banal Hollywood film is political, and the choices that are made about who is defined as heroic, who is villainous, who is marginalised, who is powerful, all of these things have implicit or sometimes explicit political overtones.
There is a kind of gentle, gestural insinuation that is passed over here—who is defined as heroic in The French Dispatch? In the same interview, Wright goes to great pains to emphasise that his character is ‘not Baldwin’, but rather ‘something else’. Here again Anderson, graciously, can recognise his own limits: ‘I don’t think we could presume to give him the gravity of Baldwin. It was always more a bit of homage.’
Whatever this homage might be striving towards, given its limited screen time and the context of the film as a whole, it is inevitably a trivialisation of Baldwin’s powerful writing on art and love. Baldwin’s love ‘does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle. Love is a war. Love is growing up.’ For him, a crucial part of this growing up is coming to terms with one’s history, really coming to terms with it and understanding how to use it—history as ‘not something merely to be read’, but whose ‘great force’ comes from ‘the fact that we carry within us.’ As with Gallant, there is a sense that Anderson hasn’t read these authors at all, but rather posted them straight to his Instagram as a bird’s eye view. If he had, he might have been chastened by Baldwin’s insistence that ‘an invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.’ It was Baldwin, after all, who wrote that
people who imagine that history flatters them are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.
This warning, for Baldwin, is a kind of love letter. By contrast, Anderson’s ‘love letter to journalism’ bears a striking resemblance to what Patricia Lockwood calls ‘the pretty irrelevance of a girl poking a daisy into the barrel of a gun’.