The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch

Outlaw Vern had a viral tweet this week in which he said: "The Wes Anderson negativity I've noticed lately is so goofy. Were people ever like, 'Oh great. Here comes Jacques Tati with another one of his fucking Jacques Tati movies'?" Putting aside the fact that, yes, people absolutely did feel this way about Tati, I am somewhat sympathetic to his broader point. Wes Anderson is a supremely talented filmmaker who has created a style uniquely his own, and that's not nothing. He's also somehow managed to build a career in which he gets to hone further and further in on that style with each new movie. That's not nothing either. In the current cinematic landscape, he's one of the only people who's able to work this way at this level, and I suppose I should be grateful.

However.

By the third of The French Dispatch's three stories, my stamina was flagging. I'm trying to figure out why this very skilful movie has left me a little cold. I do think that Anderson's cinema has started to be afflicted with a certain "If everything is awesome, nothing is awesome" syndrome. Again, I hate to sound ungrateful, because this movie is funny and entertaining and offers one perfectly manicured frame after another... but wow, these frames sure are perfectly manicured. It can feel exhausting. It would be nice to let a little air in there. Are we ever going to have another performance in a Wes Anderson movie like the one Gene Hackman gave?

I don't have this problem with Jacques Tati, whose cinema is every bit as fussed-over as Anderson's. I think the difference is, movies like Mon Oncle and Playtime are about issues that meant the world to Tati, and about which he had complex emotions, whereas I felt a certain hollowness in The French Dispatch. Take its second story, which features Timothee Chalamet as a young would-be revolutionary during what appears to be May 1968. This segment depicts the student protestors as charmingly immature, and their cause as vague and ill-defined. It's funny, but it's also the glibbest and easiest take you could have on this subject, and I kinda resented it. Anderson likes May 1968 as an aesthetic, but he also wants to stand above it, and frankly I don't think Wes Anderson has ever had a political thought in his life. Obviously he's seen Breathless and Masculine-Feminine and La Chinoise and he likes their style, but how much does he really care about them? For Godard, this political stuff wasn't a joke, and it still isn't.

The Anderson films that I find the most resonant, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, are deeply melancholy films that foreground characters who embody the passing of an old world. This is clearly an idea that Anderson cares about, and which he gestures towards here, but which simply doesn't come across. Am I really supposed to feel anything when this film's titular newspaper finally closes? As with Isle of Dogs, Anderson is playing in a foreign culture but is interested mostly in its surface, and that's a problem. One of the best scenes in Tati's Playtime comes when, in the middle of all this glass and steel, we catch a quick reflection of the Eiffel Tower. It's a powerful moment because Tati laments the loss of an old Paris that he loves, but he clearly also kinda likes the glass and steel. Is there any moment like that here?

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