Monday 25 October 2021

Titbits: "The French Dispatch"

You spend half your weekend berating modern American cinema for beating an exasperating retreat into ever more niche and nerdy microverses, and how do the studios respond? By putting out a new Wes Anderson movie. On paper, The French Dispatch might be one to win back the (quietly sizeable) contingent of Anderson sceptics and naysayers within my profession: its organising principle is journalism of an older, pre-Internet school, and it has the cute idea of relocating the New Yorker offices to a recreation of workaday France - a transposition that allows Anderson to riff on writerly habits, typical subjects of the upmarket magazine, and French cinema en tout. (Were the boutique arthouse chains showing The French Dispatch to hand out copies of the I-Spy Book of French Movie References with every ticket - as I really think they ought - you would be able to tick off Andersonian allusions to Playtime, Breathless and Zéro de conduite, and then give yourself a gold star for being a very good cinephile.) It's even been assembled in the manner of a city final or other late edition, being an assemblage of vignettes of various shapes and sizes (there are aspect-ratio gags) with illustrations and animations to fill in the gaps. Owen Wilson, en bicyclette, provides a sightseeing tour of Anderson's fictional Ennui-sur-Blasé; there's an artworld anecdote involving Adrien Brody, hulking asylum inmate Benicio del Toro and a symmetrically nude Léa Seydoux (and which, entering into the spirit of the picture entire, could do with a little editing); a column Frances McDormand files about student rebel Timothée Chalamet; a bit with Jeffrey Wright doing a pretty good James Baldwin impersonation (and which is worth sticking with for one priceless Willem Dafoe reveal); then the Dispatch's crack team assemble to pay tribute to the journal's late editor (Bill Murray), before Anderson flashes up a list of his literary influences, much as Edgar Wright used Baby Driver to foist a certain playlist upon us. As both fans and detractors have observed this weekend, the whole is very much of an Anderson muchness: prolix in its narration, stocked deep with its maker's preferred players. Hotel Chevalier, the short Anderson made to accompany The Darjeeling Limited on its travels in 2007, would slot easily into this Frenchiest of portmanteaus, suggesting the director hasn't developed unduly over the past decade-and-a-half - that he's content to pootle round within his carefully curated, cosily recognisable rut. When you announce yourself as a prodigal talent, where else is there for you to go?

It may even be too much of a muchness. For the first time watching an Anderson film from the front row, I became aware of just how much detail was passing me by. Every scene is stuffed with blink-and-you'll-miss-it signs, signifiers, handbills and tchotchkes, and I'd only have been tempted back to take a second look - as one is inclined to do with the detail in the better Pixar movies - if the narrative lines on which these paper dolls are pegged out were more compelling than they are. As it is, it's just so much scattered design: a kaleidoscope of free-floating trivia. The French Dispatch has the advantage on the weekend's other major release, in that its trivia is at least colourful, and sometimes even funny: I did chuckle at the Chalamet brigade's makeshift revolutionary slogan "les enfants sont grognons" (the children are grumpy). Yet, as elsewhere in this filmography, the archness of the framing works against any closer, deeper, more lasting engagement. I might just about have dug the Brody-del Toro business, but at a crucial stage Anderson cuts away to an art historian (Tilda Swinton, with those joke-shop teeth she occasionally pops in for a giggle) providing her own ironic commentary on it; I would certainly have been down for the unexpected McDormand-Chalamet romance, but it proves incidental to a wider turf war involving Lyna Khoudri in sidecar helmet-and-goggles (for no immediately apparent reason). In Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (which stands as Anderson's most complete endeavour), this doodling and detail coalesced into sharp, genuinely poignant observations on the human condition. Here, however, the only visible goal is for Anderson to outclever himself - and the cleverer and more convoluted the formatting gets, the further the film deviates from emotion, meaning or any real point beyond exhibiting its essential Wes-ness. If that still does it for you, then have at it. Over the past week, my social media feeds have been flooded with photos of friends and colleagues having a marvellous-looking time at the French Dispatch exhibition running at 180 The Strand - and that show would appear entirely of a piece with the film, which often resembles no more than a procession of filmed props and sets through which camera and characters can tear. Unlike Dune's lifeless installation art, this really is a motion picture, and moderately diverting with it, but the exhibition would have the advantage of allowing the invested viewer to stop and stare at the assembled collectibles. Quibble as you will about Anderson's place in the filmmaking pantheon, but his brand (Branderson?) is clearly in full effect: exit par le gift-shop.

The French Dispatch is now playing in selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment