Anderson: The French Dispatch (2021)
During his last few live action films, Wes Anderson seems to be straining at the limits of his style, which is perhaps inevitable for a director whose style is so immediately recognisable. In The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun that takes a particularly reflexive turn, as Anderson both deconstructs his style, and gestures towards whatever might lie beyond it, or be incorporated into it. As the title suggests, the film revolves around a fictional Liberty, Kansas newspaper, the Evening Sun – and, more specifically, around the French Dispatch of this newspaper, which appears to be a semi-autonomous publication. The idea of a small-town Kansas newspaper having a French supplement is a classic Anderson conceit, especially since the style and philosophy of the Liberty Sun corresponds to Anderson’s own, meaning that Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the proprietor and editor of the Dispatch, plays as a surrogate for Anderson as well.
Having established the French Dispatch as a cipher for his own style, Anderson structures the film around three main stories, each of which is dispatched from France back to Kansas. These three stories are shot in black and white, but they all end with a moment of criminal violence that transplants them back into the colourful palette of the brief American sequences. This is quite a striking decision for a director whose signature depends so much on his colour schemes, and serves two main purposes throughout the film. First, it identifies the French sequences with black-and-white cinema, allowing Anderson to invoke a variety of French directors who have influenced his version of eccentric Americana, among them Louis Feuillade, Rene Clair, and the New Wave. At the same time, paring his film back to black-and-white cinematography allows him to query his own style, and to reinvent colour with a new visceral intensity, even a new violence, in preparation for the next stage in his filmic career.
While these three stories differ in their particulars, they’re all fascinated with the infrastructure and architecture of Anderson’s style, which is the main subject of the film as a whole. In every scene, Anderson aims to both deconstruct and revive that connective tissue, meaning that The French Dispatch ramifies more as a structure than any of his films to date. Instead of looking at many spaces simultaneously, the mise-en-scene is almost entirely devoid of Anderson’s giant cross-sections, much as the ensemble cast is never united in a single tableau, partly because it’s now too big to come together in a cohesive way. Instead, Anderson opts for a compartmentalised narrative structure instead of expansively compartmentalised spaces, doing sequentially what he once did simultaneously, rotating through each component of his massive cast with a mathematical and mechanical precision.
This focus on infrastructure produces a more literal focus on scaffolding. Anderson’s backdrops always feel artificial, but now they also feel provisional – just dressed-up scaffolding, or in some cases unadorned scaffolding, not unlike some of Peter Greenaway’s more reflexive films. There’s still the same compositional ingenuity, but it’s reduced to geometric basics, while the mise-en-scene lies less in the specific backdrops than in the way Anderson orchestrates and rearranges them. You might say the backdrops here are extrinsic, less remarkable in themselves than for the combinatorial power that Anderson demonstrates in directing them. In that sense, The French Dispatch is like watching a regular Anderson film from backstage – there’s the same elegance, but we’re now seeing it from a logistical angle.
That fixation with logistics, infrastructure and scaffolding paves the way for a film that is also more informationally dense than anything else Anderson has directed. Everything is obsessively quantified in a screenplay that subsists largely on data and formulae, to the point where there’s no real dialogue anymore – just a series of demonstrations of a fully automated world that splits the difference between real motion and stop motion more subliminally than anything else Anderson has produced as well. At one point, a character plays a pinball game called “Modern Physics,” which is a good image for the way that Anderson arranges his figures around his compositions. Beyond a certain point, this is a sequence of tableaux rotated before an audience, much as each story ends with a formalist object: abstract art, chess, an abacus.
For all those reasons, it’s hard to connect with The French Dispatch emotionally, especially in contrast to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was possibly the most affectively appealing of all Anderson’s live-action films. Instead, this resonates most as an extraordinary logistical feat, full of shots that must have taken an age to conceive and construct, but that we only glimpse for a second (or less). In fact, there’s so much in here that the sheer fact of Anderson keeping it all in his head is quite an extraordinary feat, especially given the segmented style, and the logistics of coordinating the largest ensemble cast of his career to date – too big to even really qualify as an ensemble anymore. If anything, each of the three stories has its own ensemble cast, which Anderson ties together like different movements of a symphony, drawing broad strokes between the different components while attending to the tenor of each instrument.
That doesn’t mean that The French Dispatch is just an exercise in condensation, however, since two new directions in Anderson’s career start to gradually emerge. The first revolves around the film’s compulsion to quantify everything, which quickly veers into the realm of grammar, syntax and lexicography. While the black-and-white cinematography recalls earlier cinema, it also imbues every image with the feeling of newsprint, ink on paper. Similarly, the dialogue is so expository, and so suffused with the efficiency of the printed word, that the next logical step for Anderson is to introduce typography and typesetting to his mise-en-scenes. Accordingly, for long stretches of the film he seems less interested in images than in text – or images on the verge of becoming text – as his characters rotate through postures in the same way that a typesetter rotates through fonts, fusing visual and written language in the process. At one point a character observes that he has a “typographic memory” more than a “photographic” memory, since he “recalls the written word in vivid detail.” The film has a similar feel, perhaps explaining why, in retrospect, I couldn’t remember that much of the narrative, and could only remember specific images in conjunction with specific phrases.
In that sense, the film isn’t really about the French Dispatch – it is an issue of the French Dispatch, evoking the sensuous pleasures of words as mise-en-scene. By the closing credits, which take us through an apparently endless array of cover designs for the French Dispatch, all of which could equally play as storyboards for Anderson’s own world, there’s no clear distinction between screenplay and film. Instead, Anderson appears to be taking us through a transmedia text that is both visual and verbal, begging the question of whether you might get as much out of it (or more) from reading a fully annotated screenplay than in “seeing” the film, especially since the narration is so dense it really needs to be read, rather than heard.
This obsessive desire to quantify language produces a broader need to quantify artistic achievement. We hear that a journalist is the “best living writer in terms of quantity of sentences per minute,” we see a lecturer take us through a series of slides depicting the artistic merits of the French Dispatch, and the first narrative, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” culminates with the construction of “ten refined cement aggregate load-bearing murals.” This story feels foundational for the other two, and for the film as a whole, since it revolves so explicitly around artistic achievement. The main character is Moses Rosenthaler, an imprisoned artist played by Benicio Del Toro, whose abstract paintings eventually end up gracing the pages of the French Dispatch, in a story by J.K.L. Berensen, played by Tilda Swinton.
On the one hand, Rosenthaler is another cipher for Anderson himself. Like Anderson, he can only work under very strict parameters that intensify as his story proceeds – while imprisoned, while confined in a particular room, while strait-jacketed, and finally, on the cusp of the electric chair, since he’s “literally a tortured artist.” Yet for all that Rosenthaler’s artistic process recalls Anderson’s world, his “splatter paintings” couldn’t be more different to Anderson’s output. For one thing, they come from a place of perverse violence, and produce perverse violence in turn. Rosenthaler only starts painting because he’s in jail, and he’s only in jail because he beheaded two bartenders with utterly no remorse. Painting becomes a continuation of that violence, as evinced in his compulsion to stab himself in the thigh just before finishing his masterwork, along with the bloodbath of splatter horror that it produces on opening night, when the images immediately generate extreme violence. At the same time, Rosenthaler, unlike Anderson, is opposed to all framed images, and relishes the most abject of artistic ingredients – powdered eggs, shackle grease, pigeon blood, and the turpentine that he likes to smell on his model and muse, prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux).
Yet while Rosenthaler seems to diverge from Anderson’s model of artistry, he also functions as an incentive for Anderson to extend his mise-en-scenes as well. While Rosenthaler’s abstractions are controversial, his most provocative statement is to paint them directly into the prison wall, meaning that they can’t be purchased by art dealers, since they have no license to deconstruct a publically owned institution to recover them. In any case, the paintings are so fragile that the effort to remove them would probably destroy them, meaning they are destined to remain in the prison for perpetuity, only available to the eyes of the most hardened criminals. Of course, in the broader scheme of the film, this means that Rosenthaler has injected his criminal violence directly into Anderson’s own scaffolding, and revived it in the process, generating a new camera movement in Anderson’s body of work – long pans along tableaux vivants that show characters paused in the midst of violent movement. We first see this pan mirroring the sweep of Rosenthaler’s paintings and, for a director as restrained as Anderson, it feels like a line of flight, a way of enhancing and escaping his legacy.
Whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel included an unprecedented level of violence for Anderson’s body of work, The French Dispatch thus intensifies it further and subsumes it more into his stylistic scaffolding. While the first story was (for me) the most resonant, the next two stories also focus how criminal violence breeds a new blooming of colour in Anderson’s wider world. The second, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” revolves around a student named Zefirelli, played by Timothee Chalamet, who writes a pamphlet calling for the “revolutionary overthrow of reactionary neoliberal society.” Zefirelli’s manifesto advocates criminal violence, and this same taste for transgression leads him into a sexual relationship with Lucinda Krementz, another reporter for the French Dispatch, played by Frances McDormand.
However, the violence of this initial scenario quickly dissipates. For one thing, Zefirelli’s mother isn’t phased by his relationship with Lucinda, while the sexual communion between the two characters quickly gives way to an editor-writer relationship when Lucinda offers to look over his pamphlet. Informing him that “this isn’t the first manifesto I’ve proof-read,” she reduces his revolutionary ideas to a series of typographic details, and continues this lexical pedantry all the way to the barricade, where she chastises Zefirelli’s comrades about their improper taste for the written word. In the process, the barricade is reduced to more scaffolding, a stage-object, replete with a door that opens to let them walk inside, while the issue of political violence is subsumed into largely pedantic questions of “journalistic integrity.” Yet at this very moment, violence erupts, as spontaneously and unexpectedly as Rosenthaler’s paintings, blooming the same criminal colourism across Anderson’s tableaux.
Finally, the third story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” unfolds as an actual crime story, replete with abduction, poisoning and murder, along with a taste for sexual and racial diversity that we rarely see in Anderson’s films. Here, the focus on crime blossoms into a more general morbid appetite, a taste for everything outside the ambit of Anderson’s exquisite tastefulness, culminating with a chef who confesses to the extraordinary taste of toxic salts before dying from them. At this point, Anderson seems to reach a limit to his world, but to be fascinated by that limit, as the film lapses into animation, and colour bleeds more anarchically across his images than at any point in the film so far. So vivid is this colour that it appears to consume Anderson– and his surrogate, Alfred Howitzer, who we learn has passed away when we return to Kansas for the brief and brilliantly hued epilogue. The film then ends with a dedication to a vast array of journalists and writers, as well as a seemingly endless array of issues of the French Dispatch, as Anderson claims the written word as his peer – the site, somehow, of the violence he both wants to embrace and subsume back into the film, which brims with a restlessness to revise and even resist his style at its most perfect: “Maybe with good luck we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”
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