The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s new film, is a tightrope. A charming, whimsical, gently existential tightrope, but a tightrope all the same. The French Dispatch, as its title would suggest, is set in France, a country Anderson loves dearly, and where he has spent a good amount of time.
Here is where my Spidey-Sense would usually start waking up. France, you see, also happens to be the country where I was born and raised. Committing it to film is a tricky exercise, and one that’s sure to set off an overwhelming amount of discourse. There is a high risk of being too cute. There is a high risk of getting certain things plain wrong. Then again, I’ve always tried not to lean too hard into this defensiveness, because, well, I don’t think it’s my better instinct. I live in a foreign country too (hello, the US of A), and if someone told me to keep my opinions of it to myself on the basis that I’m not from around here, I would have a few choice words for them.
So as I set off to see The French Dispatch in my adopted home of New York City, I was open to the possibility of falling in love. And, reader, The French Dispatch is the kind of movie that makes me glad I kept an open mind. It shouldn’t work. If the brief is “Wes Anderson does France”, then the end result should be too pretty, too dainty, too smart for its own good. It should trigger the hell out of me, a French person from France. But it works. It works for a series of subtle reasons, which we’ll get into in a second, and it works for one big reason, which is its enormous heart.
As The Independent’s very own Clarisse Loughrey so astutely wrote, The French Dispatch is a love letter, both to France and to The New Yorker, the standard-setting magazine that has shaped American literature for almost a century. (In 1946, The New Yorker ran a short story titled Slight Rebellion offMadison; in 1951 that short story turned out to have been the basis for a little book called The Catcher in the Rye by one JD Salinger.) Love letters are a tricky form, but this one hits all the right notes.
Anderson chose to set The French Dispatch in Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictional location. (The name translates literally to Boredom-upon-Jaded, which, come on! That’s genius. I can’t be blasé about it.) On screen, Ennui is a fluid, ethereal setting that tends to adapt to the plot’s needs. It has some big-city characteristics, such as its own underground transportation system (echoing the real-life Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and a handful of additional French cities), but small-town aesthetics. This is a smart choice, because it gives Anderson room to breathe: if this is a made-up locale, then he can freely shape it to his image. He’s not trying to film France; rather, he’s trying to commit to the screen his version of France. There is a difference: the former would come off as prescriptive; the latter is the paper on which to write a love letter.
It helps, too, that Anderson cast a number of French and French-speaking actors – bonjour Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet (who has a French father and speaks fluent French), Lyna Khoudri (born in Algeria and partly raised in France), Guillaume Gallienne, Cécile de France and others. Do you know how rare it is for filmmakers to cast French people to play French characters? Too rare. (Things have improved over the past few years, but there’s still progress to be made.) There’s a long history of casting British actors to play French people, and to some extent, I get it – they’re European, but they speak English, what more could we possibly want? But French people, as it turns out, are perfectly capable of learning English and of portraying their own country on screen. Points to Monsieur Anderson for realising that.
Crucially, The French Dispatch isn’t just a love letter to France. Yes, it has fun with its Amelie-esque French gloss, but it puts down the cigarettes and the petits verres de vin long enough to deliver a clever reflection about art, muses, creative work, and the beautiful, endlessly mysterious writer-editor relationship. “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” Bill Murray’s character Arthur Howitzer Jr, based on New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross, urges his writers. Anderson takes his own advice: everything he does in The French Dispatch seems purposeful. It’s aware of itself without being overly self-aware. Chalamet’s performance embodies this with beautiful clarity: his character, a wide-eyed, overeager, yet slightly empty student revolutionary, is by turns goofy and devastatingly sincere.
The French Dispatch works because it has many things to say beyond “Isn’t France pretty? Aren’t French people funny?”. It works because it allows an aesthetic to be just that: a poetic framework in which to tell an actual story. And for that, I say merci.
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