Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch offers the most extreme sign yet of a twenty-five-year process – the mutation of the director’s taste for tweaking the world into a need to rebuild it from scratch, an imperial-utopian project that extends far beyond the realm of typography and décor. The subject is an Anglophone magazine concerned with the life of a place called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but while the history or mythology of The New Yorker and post-war Paris are both somewhere in the mix, and even provide an element of gravitas, it is typical of Anderson’s procedure that details of all kinds have been modified.
The urge to fiddle and fabricate, now dominant and defining, once occupied a supporting role. Though Anderson was eager to stamp his mark on things, he seemed to recognise the limits stubbornly imposed by fact and sense. During the first half of his career to date, a run of work – witty and arch yet poignant – that established him as one of the most distinctive writer-directors in American cinema, a kind of Disney Pinter, characters such as Max and Herman in Rushmore (1999) or the ramshackle family in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) slotted into a series of recognisable, if varyingly stylized and frequently nameless, turn-of-the-millennium locales. So Etheline Tenenbaum’s memoir Family of Geniuses, like the personal-finance guide published by her accountant and suitor Henry Sherman and the plays of her adopted daughter Margot, exists alongside the work of Tom Stoppard and Tom Clancy, Anton Chekhov and Maurice Sendak – or at least his phrase ‘where the wild things are’, which appears in a magazine cover line for an article that designates Margot’s lover, Eli Cash, the James Joyce of the Wild West. And though Margot’s copy of Between the Buttons appears to omit the song ‘Connection’, Anderson was still offering a version of modern metropolitan life in which a depressed thirty-four-year-old may find herself reverting to the enthusiasm for The Rolling Stones that she acquired as an adolescent in the late 1970s.
A degree of contact with reality remained even as Anderson began to cultivate more overtly imaginative tendencies. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), marine life is given a makeover, with talk of the sugar crab and crayon ponyfish, but aboard Steve’s ship the Belafonte, Bowie songs are performed – albeit in Portuguese – and there’s a name-check for ‘Cousteau and his cronies’ long after you might have concluded that Team Zissou is their stand-in. Indeed, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), a bereavement comedy shot on location in India, gave reason to believe that Anderson might be moving in the other direction. That proved anomalous. Since then, Anderson has made five films, all of them animated or set in an overhauled version of the past, that exhibit an impulse towards fabulism and fetishism along with a marked tendency towards the childish or lawless. Though inevitable in the case of his stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), its follow-up, the slight coming-of-age fantasia Moonrise Kingdom (2012), set in 1965, revealed this had not merely been a product of the circumstances. We only know for sure that the setting, ‘New Penzance Island’, is situated on the American landmass from a late reference to the ‘U.S. department of Inclement Weather’, and you would be hard-pressed to say whether the New Penzancers are aware of the existence of a place called Vietnam. (Rushmore, by contrast, features a veteran as one of its main characters.)
Clues as to the status of world history became thicker on the ground in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), though to no obvious purpose. The film depicts an eastern-European country, Zubrowka, that undergoes rough, but cartoonish, equivalents of Nazi occupation, Sovietization, glasnost, and perestroika. Similarly, in The French Dispatch, Ennui remains, like its model, a place associated with painting, smoking, sex, coffee and food, though a prison is ‘federal property’, and a student-led riot obliterates ‘a thousand years of republican authority’. The work of Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, and others is mulched to create the French Splatter-school Action group. The events of May 1968 are moved three years earlier, and while the ‘Girls Dormitory Uprising’ has some basis in an objection raised by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the ‘Chessboard Revolution’ is a piece of pure whimsy.
Anderson has previously used the device of presenting his films as quasi-adaptations of invented artefacts: The Royal Tenenbaums is a rendering of a comic novel issued by the Roosevelt Park Branch of a city library, while The Grand Budapest Hotel had a similar relationship to a work of auto-fiction by a celebrated Zubrowkan author. Here we are watching a kind of adaptation of five articles from the Dispatch, or a mixture of the articles and their evolution, composition, and editing. From a local-colour feature by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) we receive an account of Ennui’s origins and customs. The reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) follows and falls in with the student revolutionary Zeffirelli B. The man of letters Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), appearing as a talk-show guest, recites from memory his profile of the police commissioner’s chef, written when the commissioner’s son was kidnapped by a local gang. The sometime curator J. K. L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) delivers a museum lecture about an unusual fresco by the criminally insane Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Even the broad-brush material about the magazine derives from an obituary of the founding – and, as things turn out, sole – editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), a collaborative effort on the part of the staff.
It’s somewhat surprising to learn from An Editor’s Burial, a tie-in collection of articles and excerpts which Anderson calls ‘a great big footnote’, that The French Dispatch originates in a deep love and knowledge of The New Yorker. The film is structured in such a way that it barely touches on the magazine’s workings, while the articles themselves are cheapened or sent up. For the Roebuck Wright story, Anderson cross-pollinates James Baldwin’s moving reminiscence, ‘Equal in Paris’, with A. J. Liebling’s bulletins on French cuisine – and then uses the result as the backdrop for a crime thriller with debts to poetic realism and Kurosawa’s High and Low. Mavis Gallant’s diary of les événements is remade as a surreal and colourful farce. J. K. L. Berensen is an odd case, being based not on S. N. Behrman – the author of a six-part art-world expose which provides some of the Rosenthaler detail – but on the subject of a different New Yorker article, Calvin Tomkins’s snapshot of the London-based American ‘art talker’ Rosamund Bernier.
It’s striking and somewhat depressing that while Bernier told Tomkins that she ‘never slept with’ any of the artists she had known, Berensen says of Rosenthaler, ‘We were lovers’. How this bit of backstory relates to Berensen’s earlier description of an attempted rape in a ‘pigment-locker’ goes unexplained – as does the relationship between Berensen’s conventional art-history lecture and the article that gives the copy-editing department proof-reader such a headache (the film’s opening exchange concerns her split infinitives and dangling participles). But then Anderson’s pursuit of extreme fictionality has developed in tandem with a disdain for seriousness and also rigour. Fredric Jameson, in his 1979 essay ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, observed that impatience with historical accuracy can be a symptom of a deeper resistance to what he called the substance of historicity and the ‘logic of the content’. A version of this position can be detected in Anderson’s work of the past decade or so. If reality as we know it can be effaced and over-written, why not its less biddable components? Anderson wants to do away with established topography and recorded fact but also rules of other kinds – to disregard cause and effect, building whole films out of non-sequiturs and near-gags. There’s a telling moment in The French Dispatch when someone asks of a Rosenthaler painting, ‘Why is this good?’ and receives the answer, ‘Wrong idea.’
An anything-goes spirit was occasionally evident in Anderson’s early films, for example in Richie Tenenbaum’s line ‘I’m going to kill myself tomorrow’, an allusion to Louis Malle’s The Fire Within that lacks any kind of pretext in the action (Richie cuts his wrists moments later). But now more than ever, local effects – the punchline or pay-off or moment of flippancy – operate in a vacuum, without justifying context or reference. At one point in The French Dispatch, Krementz enters a bathroom and finds Zeffirelli hiding in the bathtub, writing his manifesto. He asks why she is crying. She replies, ‘Tear gas’, then adds, ‘also, I suppose I’m sad’. A variant of this punchline goes back to Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket (1996) when the wide-eyed burglar Dignan is asked why he no longer works for a well-established local criminal and replies, ‘Because we’re fugitives. And also because he fired me’. But Dignan’s double answer is a plausible bit of character-drawing, rooted in hesitancy about revealing the boring truth, whereas in The French Dispatch the first answer is also true, truer in fact (we know she wasn’t crying before the tear gas was released). A few moments later, Krementz reads Zeffirelli’s manifesto, and describes it as ‘damp’. He pushes her for clarity. ‘Physically? Or metaphorically?’ The confounding comeback – ‘Both’ – has become inevitable, the lunge for a laugh by-passing the steps required to earn it (as if that would be her choice of diagnostic adjective).
The enormities of Anderson’s recent work are not simply the product of his journey but of a seemingly inexorable film-historical logic. Jameson has been justly celebrated for tracing and to some degree codifying these developments, in a series of essays and lectures beginning with ‘Reification and Utopia’ that were collected in a trio of books published in the early 1990s. But Pauline Kael, in her capacity as The New Yorker’s regular reviewer (she has no French Dispatch counterpart) also provided an account of emergent postmodernism via more or less the same judgments – apprehension about Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rumble Fish, enthusiasm for Blow Out, Diva, Blue Velvet, and Something Wild, puzzlement (verging in her case on dismay) at what was unprophetically known as ‘late Godard’. Where Jameson distinguished pastiche from satire and parody to identify the vehicle for a hollow new nostalgic mode, Kael, laying waste to Beineix’s Diva follow-up, The Moon in the Gutter, offered a no less ringing account, announcing the emergence of what she named ‘re-representation,’ a ‘kind of recycling’ that lacked the ‘satirical zest’ of Pop Art and camp, ‘images without substance’. (There’s a case to be made that Kael got there first, with her observations about pastiche and the retreat from meaning in Coppola’s One from the Heart – a review that appeared more than six months before the 1982 Whitney lecture in which Jameson made his first substantial intervention.)
Anderson has always been drawn to the distancing potential of film language and conventions – tableau-style framing, recurrent inter-titles, obtrusive pans and tracking shots, questions being asked in one location but answered in another. But The French Dispatch is a veritable inventory of the postmodern strategies that have emerged since the start of the 1980s (Anderson was born in 1969), and not just in its replication of film styles (the Zeffirelli section, for example, is a mash-up of Godard, Truffaut, and Jean Eustache). There’s also the smashing of the fourth wall, the shorthand signposting of cultural traditions (France being cigarettes, cafés and peeved workers), the gutting of past epochs to create what Jameson has called ‘fashion-plate images’ with ‘no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time’, and the casting of auto-allusive, persona-laden, or association-burdened actors like Murray, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, and Elisabeth Moss (doing a spin on her Mad Men role), as well as the sardonic sylph Timothée Chalamet who, in certain moods, aspires to achieve postmodernism in one person.
It’s notable how many conceits, some of them highly specific, The French Dispatch shares with the recent work of American cinema’s arch-postmodernists, Joel and Ethan Coen – among other things, the use of comedy Communists, a fictional 60s crooner, an ending that joins up with the beginning, an omnibus format with a literary source. But unlike the Coen Brothers, Anderson is unwilling to follow postmodernism to its nihilist, or at least shoulder-shrugging, endpoint. Scene by scene, everything in his recent work is fodder, a feed line, an opportunity for (largely symmetrical) spectacle, a storm in a snow globe. And yet there’s an abiding love of the arc – the origin, turning-point, and pay-off.
Confronted by Godard’s Passion (1982), Jameson wondered whether the film was ‘coherent’ or instead represents ‘some new kind of incoherence’ (new at that point, though not for long). If The French Dispatch offers the piecemeal character of the omnibus film, a narrative analogue of the magazine issue, it makes a feint towards thematic unity – about foreigners looking for peace or belonging. There’s also the lifespan of the magazine whose birth is described in the first line and which ends with the end credits, and the conventional structuring embodied in the articles: Krementz asking, ‘Before it began, where did it begin?’, Roebuck explaining that ‘police cooking began with the stake-out picnic and paddy-wagon snack’, Sazerac that Ennui ‘began as a cluster of tradesman’s villages’ and ‘rises suddenly on a Monday’, Berensen that the story of Rosenthaler’s famous fresco ‘begins in a mess hall’.
Jameson described the two modes of spectatorship invited by modernism (or residual classicism) and postmodern jouissance – ‘active analysis’ vs ‘sitting back to watch it all hang out’. Seasoned Anderson-watchers will be familiar with the nausea induced by alternating between one and the other, tracking his refusal to recognise the bargain he has made. To the question of using English or French, colour or black-and-white, to indulge his fondness for America or France, Anderson gives the postmodernist answer, ‘Both’. Yet he provides the same response to the quandary of whether to opt for postmodern freedoms or classical consolations. (His greed is also reflected in the near-exhaustive incorporation of other media, in this case illustration, TV, journalism, song, painting, cartoon, theatre – a habit among filmmakers that Jameson once argued points to the medium’s designs on producing the Gesamtkunstwerk.)
In the final scene of The French Dispatch, when the staff members gather in Howitzer’s office to compose his obituary, the designer asks if it’s true that the magazine began as a holiday and Sazerac says, ‘Sort of’. But we have already been exposed to the outcome of this collaborative process, in the film’s first line: ‘It began as a holiday’. Any fears about a truth-slighting neatness have been dispelled, by writer-director as by staff writer, the better to realise a sense of occasion. You could construe this as a comment on journalism, or the self-image of journalism, if Anderson weren’t so often in the habit, in a film’s dying moments, of wanting the cake he earlier took pleasure in scoffing.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Anderson’s hostility to choice is his insistence on the trio as persistently conflict-ridden and the site of balance. The same outcome, a sort of volte-face ex machina, occurs again and again – envy and secrecy, jockeying and one-upmanship, simply swept to one side, often with the help of slow-motion and early-70s pop music. A version of the same magic trick occurs in the student section of The French Dispatch, where Krementz restores Zeffirelli to his on-off girlfriend Juliette with the line ‘Stop bickering – go make love’. If the film as a whole aims for a different kind of catharsis, based around a larger group dynamic, the insistence on a tone of bittersweet resignation, so at odds with its stories of death and violence, provides a reminder of the utopianism of which Anderson has always been capable – and a microcosm for his attempt, never cogent but less sustainable than ever, to make the contradictions of his sensibility resemble an achievement of synthesis.
Read on: Fredric Jameson, ‘The Aesthetics of Singularity’, NLR 92.