“Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” – Arthur Howitzer Jr.
Still cameras, black and white cinematography and a colourful explosion of artistic variety. Wes Anderson has a unique and refined style. His work will continue in this manner for the remainder of his career, and rightly so. His stunning and expressive features have waned in recent years though. It is the ineffective discovery of the commercial viability or the hope of such in the future. The French Dispatch raked in its cut of the budget and then some, but it is a rare sight to see an Anderson feature pulling in a profit. Perhaps it is the remarkable self-parody on display. The culmination of twenty years in the business of directing, eventually repetition looks commercial, and commerciality is on the agenda for Anderson.
That need for some broader appeal has not sacrificed artisanship. The French Dispatch is a thoroughly solid piece of film, one that is strung together as a series of different quips and moments from his previous films. Highs and lows are inevitable, but this love letter to journalism will have fans from the outside, but also those on the inside of newsrooms and tabloid offices. The beauty of a broad piece exploding and contorting. Twisting its way through the pages as some strange and unique experience. Louis Theroux would often trial this with his documentaries. Innocent starts would sometimes spill into a darker side of some unknown sub-culture. The French Dispatch depends on that. It throws a journalist into an assignment and sees what happens when the story, and the hack at the heart of it, change.
It is wishful thinking to suggest that the presentation is a success. Anderson struggles uncomfortably as he slides these characters into positions they are not normally used to. The Concrete Masterpiece is the story that works best and is also the one that does not feature that conflict between journalist and human. A journalist at the heart of the story is rarely a story at all. Hunter S. Thompson got away with it because he was enveloped in the times and had a formidable necessity in being there. With the characters portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand, that feeling is never observed. There is no need for them to be implicated in the works. They are not flies on the wall but active participants, and unmoved emotionally when the going for their subjects gets tough. It is the best and worst aspects of journalism adapted thoroughly poorly.
Hollow to its core, perhaps intentionally. There are no actual characters in The French Dispatch. They are pragmatical solutions to self-made problems. The French Dispatch is overblown and gluttonous. It falls to that deadly sin not just because it has the budget to do so and the cast to follow through with, but Anderson always insists on one-upping himself. The simplicity and story-driven enclosure of early works like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou did not have the fully expanded cinematography. It still felt fresh in those early years. Experimenting with new and thoughtful ranges and atmospheres. The French Dispatch is the inevitable culmination of a man trying to top his peak from six years ago.
Anderson can’t wind this style down though. How could he backtrack when his films have progressively gotten bigger and bigger? Bigger casts, bigger budgets, a bigger everything. The French Dispatch feels bloated because of that. He dabbles with animation, spots of colour and big ideas about the world of intense and unique journalism. If only it were so beautiful. There is nothing within The French Dispatch that feels like an insult to journalism, but nothing feels all that idyllic or responsible about the cultural period Anderson adapts. It is his amuse-bouche styling that gives it that sugar-coated sickliness, and it is hard to shed that when The French Dispatch spends much of its time portraying journalists as snooty heroes instead of coffee-dependent hacks. That is what France does to a person though, and Anderson tries so hard to confirm this view of journalism that he begins knocking at and mocking his own works.
Self-parody is not far off within The French Dispatch, but it has been a recurrent theme in the works Anderson has provided in his post The Grand Budapest Hotel phase. His work is sickly, and it is that style that will make or break an audience’s perception. His work has always been intrinsically Parisian. A petits fours for the eyes. But to gorge on those is a distant yet fatal possibility. Anderson must know that as he knocks out the colour and shades his three mini-stories in black and white, with brief pockets of colour interwoven without much thought.
But, as Arthur J. Howitzer (Bill Murray) would explain in the film to his writers, “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”. Just another quibble of the Anderson mentality. Here is an ambitious approach to a period that makes little sense, and most of that is because of how it is presented. The “No Crying” sign above the door, the selection of delicacies presented to the editor on a tray are there for aesthetic reasons, and in no way make much of a mark on the story. Even then, the stories do little to carry themselves between riffing the first few lines of Jarvis Cocker’s Aline cover or having a quick montage to catch an audience up to the present. Animated segments, pop star covers and a real lack of reasoning make The French Dispatch this frustratingly good-looking envelope of segmented, fractured individuals coming together for the death of their editor. Maybe Anderson wrote it that way on purpose, and if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be all that much of a surprise.