The new Wes Anderson film “The French Dispatch” is a fascinating study of many things – about power, about elitism, and just how people react when others attempt to wield it. Many of the films I’ve watched lately have left an echo in my mind of what Virgina Woolf referred to as self-conscious virility, which she termed as a male reaction to women gaining more self-definition and freedom.
Such a concept could easily be applied to other groups, particularly whiteness, as not just the #MeToo, but the Black Lives Matter Movement, among others, have become increasingly vocal about the aggressions, both micro and macro, that have kept them insulated from the comfortable insularity of the establishment, typically dominated white men.
It could only disturb a film like this. To watch a Wes Anderson movie is often to view a kind of insular world, even if his seductively stylish eccentricities are occasionally successfully transplanted to less elitist settings, such as the stop-motion animal community of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or the isolated island world under threat in “Moonrise Kingdom.” His brand of whimsy, however, doesn’t go down well when it’s applied to communities of color, which often results in outright fetishization, as “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Isle of Dogs” can attest.
You would think then, that Anderson would be in safe territory with “The French Dispatch,” which is a series of short stories which were published in the magazine the film takes its name from. That its origins lay in a young man going to Europe on his dad’s dime and founding a publication for the purpose of bringing French culture to his all-American home state of Kansas is a commentary in itself, but if it offends, then chances are Wes Anderson has never been for you.
The subsequent fetishization of the fictional French town of…Ennui (jfc), at least goes down better than his cinematic outings to Japan and India. But then, “The French Dispatch” is basically Anderson’s tribute to “The New Yorker,” which makes no apologies for, and even prides itself on, its elitism, and its many cultural tributes are sure to delight the narrow slice of audience this film is made for.
It also brilliantly obscures its flaws, particularly during the first half, which contains one of the most exquisitely rendered disregard for human life I’ve ever seen. Its story of an incarcerated, mentally ill murderer and his artistic success is also the strongest, with the rest of the film rendered somewhat colorless by comparison, even during its most whimsically bright moments.
The mistake that “The French Dispatch” makes is classic in itself, that of indulging what it’s trying to criticize. A healthy appreciation for dark humor is practically a prerequisite for a critic and a writer in general, but such callous disregard for humanity is what is at the root of the movie’s darkly comic moments, which include a prisoner (Benicio Del Toro) nearly being electrocuted by one of his guards. Even if he’s a proven murderer, it’s still ill-advised.
Anderson tries to compensate by making Simone (Léa Seydoux), the guard who throws the switch, not only Del Toro’s lover but his muse, the one who inspires him to create the great works of art that bring him to the attention of the titular publication. But it’s a wealthy white man’s version of powerlessness, all fetishized into an erotic power dynamic that sees the muse choosing sex on her terms. Nevermind that it often works out quite differently, but such callous ignorance and disregard shines even among the cartoonishly stylized circumstances.
The fascination alone is what is worthy of Seydoux, and the other characters, which include students indulging in some bullshit revolution while Frances McDormand gets it on with the most charismatic one, naturally played Timothée Chalamet, even if she’s fully clothed when she’s sitting in bed with him. Anderson even fetishizes Saoirse Ronan as much as he dares, reducing her to a slight role as a hooker with a heart of gold during the third act, which concerns a kidnapping that transforms into a literal cartoon sequence.
Since it’s still Anderson, there’s enough creativity, as well as a brilliant enough performance by Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in to inspire dreams of biopic casting. But it’s built on too shaky a foundation to even approach greatness.