Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2021: Dispatch #4

The French Dispatch and a plug for other work.

Note: this article originally ran on Soundsphere Magazine (link).

One of the many perks to my being a member of the BFI Critics Mentorship programme – I promise that I’m not going to keep starting every one of these dispatches with the same inadvertent humblebrag, but it’s actually relevant this time – is that I got put in contact with a few editors at a couple of national-level film publication outlets without having to make my clinically-anxious arse do the hard part of proper networking.  Our programme leaders, plus the mentors we were assigned, sent us a few mass email contacts with included notes about how they’ll keep a special eye out for pitches by our group during the festival window if we fancied making any.  For somebody like me, utterly petrified of inserting themselves into any potential conversation without prior introduction even though the other person in said convo’s whole job is listening to unsolicited messages from total strangers, such a thing can be considered my long-sought-after cheat code.  My one shot, one opportunity, mom’s spaghetti.

Of course, that perk also comes with two pretty major drawbacks for someone with a broken-ass brain like myself.  The first being that not taking full advantage of this access feels like squandering a golden opportunity I’ll likely never get again.  To be clear, most people’s idea of “taking full advantage” would be “try pitching a few things, eventually work on getting an article or two up in the aftermath of the festival, and not sweating if anything falls through.”  That is not the same as what my rather unhealthy brain considers “taking full advantage” to be, instead more “PITCH EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME EVERY SECOND, HAVE ARTICLES GOING UP EVERY SINGLE DAY, ALL THE BYLINES, WHY ARE YOU WASTING YOUR TIME OTHERWISE?!”  So, when I hit Day 10 of my time in London with almost no ideas for major pitches, all interview efforts having fallen through, and a combination of fatigue from the mentorship leading to minimal writing during the night, plus strange Soundsphere-related technical issues hampering my ability to post my usual diary dispatches, meaning I had almost no bylines period…  It’s hard not to get demoralized if you subscribe to the ‘idealised’ workaholic mindset I can’t help but still do, particularly when reality bumps up against those unhealthy expectations.

The second is that, should you actually get published, you obviously cannot reuse or repurpose the content in that piece for usage in another piece.  Like, say for sake of example, a set of diary dispatches meant to chronicle one’s experiences at and impressions of every film seen during a film festival.  I mean, that’s just good business sense.  And I bring that up because you’re currently reading the words of a Little White Lies-published author, since they took my first-look review of actress-turned-writer/director Natalie Morales’ lovely pandemic drama Language Lessons (Grade: B).  It’s a very good movie I’d like to talk more about than the 500-word limit I was given, since I worry the piece is a little more surface and general than I’d like – which is a fear I had throughout all of my Critics Mentorship internal assignments, honestly; 700 words always feels like I’m just getting started.  I just, obviously, can’t since it’d effectively cannibalise the nationally published piece you can go read and share right now.  To ensure I stay on the right side of the potential-contract-violation line, I’ll simply say that it’s a very good movie which makes excellent use of the Zoom call concept to transcend the “pandemic movie” restrictions inherent in its existence.  Look out for the film next year.

Let’s instead talk in-depth about something which stays resolute and proudly unchanging in the face of unstable ever-shifting times: Wes Anderson.  It feels like, since the 2010s started, we’ve all been wondering how much further Wes is able to push his particular stylistic aesthetic, if maybe we have managed to hit Peak Wes Anderson.  After all, once he made a stop-motion animated feature, 2009’s excellent if unconventional Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation, we’d surely seen the logical endgame of his famously fussy, tightly controlled, symmetrical and angular approach to visual filmmaking.  The man who wants total control over everything in his scene having shifted over to a medium where all potential variables can be completely controlled by the filmmaker and his team.  This was as Full Wes as one could possibly get, right?

Evidently not.  2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and especially 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel saw him burrow even deeper into that singular niche and, if anything, crank up the aesthetic stylisation even further.  Aspect ratio changes, monochrome bursts, lots of to-camera profile shots, even more elaborate sets and colour co-ordinated costumes, deadpan humour which was now positively bone-dry, animated intertitles, retro fetishization, an earnest heart for his characters and subject which negates any “style over substance” critiques, the works.  Even when he went back to the realm of animation with material which seemed like a major departure for the man, an honest-to-God old-fashioned samurai movie with dogs in 2018’s Isle of Dogs, the results were still, in tone and style, unmistakeably Wes Anderson.  The moviemaking landscape may constantly change, idiosyncratic filmmakers may resolve themselves to working for hire, but Wes Anderson stubbornly stays the same and frankly I love him for it.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Therefore, it’s maybe not the loaded statement I intend for it to be when I tell you that The French Dispatch (Grade: B+) is the most Wes Anderson film ever made, more than a little to its detriment.  The man has always been obsessed with treating his meticulously crafted worlds like fine-tuned dioramas, actors and characters positioned and directed like the dolls who inhabit these spaces, and in an anthology set-up like the one French Dispatch has this obsession can threaten to become a little terminal.  This is by far the most emotionally detached Wes has been in a long while.  Right from the off, the aestheticized nature of proceedings becomes readily apparent as we watch a bus boy of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun take the very belaboured journey to the offices of recently-deceased founder and editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) whilst Anjelica Huston narrates an obituary for both the man and the paper he ran.  Wes and loyal cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s trademark wide-angle lens long-shots detailing this busboy’s constant ducking in and out of different rooms, climbing ladders, taking dumbwaiters, once or twice appearing without explanation at the other side of the building he just entered.  Yep, a Wes Anderson film, alright.

And it only gets more Wes from there.  As mentioned, The French Dispatch is an anthology movie and each story shown is one of the pieces being included in the titular magazine’s final issue, hence a pretty dry and somewhat intentionally disconnected attitude towards most of the events on-screen.  Excepting the brief comical opener of a travel writer (Owen Wilson) describing the less tourist-y parts of the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé, all of the three main stories are presented near-exclusively in black-in-white, only bursting into colour at select shots sometimes of obvious importance but other-times less so.  Every story has a boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio.  Most have a framing device within the film’s overall framing device.  All feature somewhat questionable treatments of their female characters, as is common with female characters in Wes Anderson films – being either muse ingenues, romantic leads defined by solely by that, or expendable.  And all come with different narrators who guide the stories along at a journalistic remove (mostly) with Wes’ famous writerly matter-of-fact deadpan dialogue nobody else has yet managed to better.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

As such, you need to be firmly on the Wes Anderson train to not find this all absolutely and completely insufferable.  Further still, it really helps for you to be a fan of writing in general and The New Yorker, the obvious inspiration for The French Dispatch even before the animated car chase rendered in the style of that magazine’s cartoons, since the emotional heart of the movie by-and-large is towards the art of writing and storytelling.  The power of telling interesting stories, giving voices to the misfits and outsiders, even if said stories don’t seem to go much of anywhere or have a greater point to make.

To that end, I can understand the complaints I heard from several of my fellow festival critics that French Dispatch is all style and no substance.  Unlike with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which for all its quirk built to some powerful messages about the fleeting nature of nostalgia and the cruel totalitarian crushing of hope, it’s rare that Wes and his regular collaborators build to an obvious grander point beyond “what a story, Mark.”  Although the second story, involving an expertly-used Timothée Chalamet as a student rebel with a nebulously-defined cause, does have a killer final button with distinct real-world parallels about the commodification of revolutionary symbolism.

But that heart is there.  Wes is just asking the viewer to work a little harder to mine it out.  In particular, the final major story is on paper, and in much of the execution, the most farcical.  A food journalist, played by Jeffrey Wright in a performance which demands Best Supporting Actor nominations lest I riot, goes to dine with the world-renowned private chef of a police commissioner (Mathieu Amarlic) only for the commissioner’s precocious son (Winston Ait Hellal) to be kidnapped by associates of the local mafia during the meal, necessitating a hostage rescue involving said chef.  Yet, by far, it’s also the film’s most quietly moving story as Wright’s journalist, a gay Black American expat, gives away so much of himself in both his world-weary soft-spoken line deliveries, a stark contrast from the film’s other narrators, and general mannerisms.  A man who can perfectly remember every single word he ever wrote and connects so deeply with food and the stories of those who make them, yet cursed to feel disconnected and distant no matter where he goes due to factors he has no control over.  When he finally shares a conversation with chef Stephen Park, that fleeting shared connection is haunting.

Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

So, eventually, The French Dispatch provides lasting substantive meat to chew on.  But I still found the journey there, and the movie overall, more than satisfactory.  Even more than there being no major weak link in the stories, since an anthology is only ever as strong as its weakest story, I just really love the way that Wes Anderson makes movies.  They’re bursts of pure pleasure to my Aspie brain.  I love the heavily-symmetrical diorama approach he has to shot and set composition; there are even a few staged freeze-frames where the actors are forced to hold a pose rather than do a proper freeze-frame.  I love how imaginative and tactile his worlds end up being, if only for the evident effort put into the creation of every single one of his sets.  I love that writerly droll humour of Wes’ which so many other “smart comedies” attempt to imitate yet forget these important things called “punchlines.”  I even love his habit of filing through a rolodex of beloved actors to use for three-line cameos before disappearing.  (A non-comprehensive list of such: Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz, Rupert Friend, Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Jarvis Cocker, and many more.)

The French Dispatch, therefore, is Wes Anderson’s weakest film in over a decade.  Perhaps the point where the Wes Anderson-ness of it all has finally reached critical mass.  But, honestly, I am still all too enamoured by the way in which the man makes movies for the relative emotional distance to bother me all that much.  At this point, there is something rather comforting about going to a Wes Anderson film, knowing roughly what you’re going to get yet the results still having the capacity to surprise.  If nothing else, French Dispatch is an indication that Wes will remain utterly singular until the day he finally hangs it all up.

Next time: Jane Campion finally returns to filmmaking with The Power of the Dog, and Craig Roberts goes golfing with Phantom of the Open.

Callie Petch is more than a degree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s