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The French Dispatch is a nostalgic look back at a Paris of the imagination

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

A weirdly beautiful curiosity, Wes Anderson’s latest film boasts a host of stars and a look back at the Paris that was—and least in the imaginations of some self-serious writers.

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I offer you a series on Hollywood as seen by its artists, on the occasion of the impending Oscars. I don’t mean the dominant liberal arrogance that has doomed cinema, but rather the efforts of artists who have spent their careers trying to advance a view of America that might bring us together, or at least help prevent us coming apart, the concern of all decent people who have influence.

I start with Wes Anderson, than whom no artist is taken less seriously when it comes to reflections on politics and society. He makes comedies, and we are prejudiced against comedy, as the people have always been. Worse still for him, Anderson crafts animations, the most despised genre when it comes to serious thought.

Anderson, however, has a rare prestige as an artist who beautifies the past and therefore his actors. The cast of the movie is said to have 11 Oscars among them, the crew another eight. His movies won them some of those awards, yet he has never won an Oscar himself, after seven nominations. Hollywood wants to be in his movies, yet Hollywood has never rewarded him, a paradox that shows how bad liberal elites are at bestowing honors.

Anderson’s latest, his 10th feature film, The French Dispatch, is accordingly one of the few movies likely to win important Oscars actually to deserve the honor. It’s a three-part look at the midcentury American fascination with France, which after World War II became the image of sophistication, intellectually, artistically, and in a way even politically, especially for liberals. Anderson seems himself to be the kind of liberal who fell in love with that midcentury American longing for prestige, in this case the prestige magazines that tried to introduce France to Americans in the generation before his.

Nostalgia is very much on directors’ minds these days, as my series of essays will show, but in this case it’s remarkable as much for artistic reasons as for the thought it suggests. The comedic conceit of The French Dispatch is that an American heir to a business fortune (Bill Murray) fell in love with France after a youthful visit and decided to start a magazine that would employ American writers (Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright) to cover France for an American audience. Thus, Francophilia helps Americans improve themselves, or at least lets out the inner Frenchman waiting in the bosoms of some Americans; saved from commercial imperatives, these writers can become artists. On the editor’s death, perhaps in our times, these writers gather to put together one last issue in his honor and, according to his instructions, reprint three essays, which in turn become the movie we see. As for the conceit itself, it adds every possible dignity to nostalgia by turning it into a remembrance of a dead man while raising the question, since his entire enterprise is now over, is there anything more to it than the passion that must expire with the man? After all, isn’t he very ridiculous—are not France and America as different and blind to each other as ever?

Still, the conceit allows Anderson to film as he wishes us to believe people imagined those Francophile stories. He aims to capture a past when people aimed for beauty and even elegance, not glamour, not vulgarity; or if not beauty, then at least authenticity of expression—style. Anderson’s style is called aestheticized by people who like it and twee by people who don’t; it’s not realistic—often a series of living tableaux—it’s not serious, and it doesn’t seem therefore to live up to the political requirements of liberal art. Nor is it Progressive or woke, and, of course, it doesn’t “center” the experiences of “BIPOCs,” in the vulgar language elites now embrace. The style seems almost reactionary in its embrace of a past when being cultured was prized perhaps as much as being an activist.

It were better to say that Anderson’s style insists on the combination of the prosaic and the idealistic in the middlebrow art par excellence—cinema. He wishes to show us a kind of love of grandeur, not grandeur itself, which maybe escapes us. Love of grandeur or longing for it is not grandeur—it is comparatively laughable, and really ridiculous, because it points out that we are trying to be much more than we are, that our love of beauty may be boasting. Nor is Anderson a satirist by trade, since he lacks the cruelty and the moral commitments; he laughs gently at our longing for a chic past, since he shares our weakness.

Still, he shows grave things in a whimsical light, and the view he offers of Francophile elitism is unflattering. The first story concerns a mad French murderer who is also an artist (Benicio del Toro). Justice is not so important to people looking for what is called an epiphany nowadays—an experience that confirms one’s personal, private claim to human or cosmic greatness. So the entire story is about a silly purveyor of art (Adrien Brody and his uncles, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) who makes the murderer into an international celebrity in the liberal art world, because the madness (his paintings are abstractions that look nothing like their nude model, played by Léa Seydoux, one of the artist’s prison guards) looks very fascinating to people who feel too respectable to ever commit crimes themselves.  Perhaps crime is even better than justice, more authentic, less conformist, less impersonal, and perhaps cosmically justified. I suppose in a sense they are right that the murderer is more human than they are: They act as though life, especially horror, is a spectacle for them. But it all ends with this absurd pretension being taught in an art school by a depleted survivor of that age of enthusiasm (Tilda Swinton), to an audience that cannot make head or tails of what they’re hearing and seeing. I guess you had to be there.

If this sounds moralistic, or even conservative, I should correct the mistake—Anderson is a liberal and temperamentally unable to express outrage. He lets the audience judge. Is it right to celebrate an artist and look for his redemption from crime? Does it matter that his art is sentimental, brutal, and mediocre? Or is that desire to turn crime into celebrity not such a humanitarian impulse but what our vulgar liberal elites would call fetishization? Or perhaps right does not even matter—it’s not what elites want, but instead they want something better even than beauty—authentic suffering—something to disturb them from conventional lives they can neither escape nor believe in.

The second “French dispatch” again shows how crime might be preferred to justice—a comic rendering of the May 1968 riots. This famous show of class contempt saw bored students behave like savages, expecting that they would get away with it. That was the moment liberalism officially collapsed, as the claims of Enlightenment were replaced by halfhearted attempts at tyrannic violence in the university, the very temple of enlightenment, lightly disguised as principled political transformation. Of course, such student protests happened in America, too, and were similarly politicized, whether to do with Vietnam or civil rights, but for the most part were merely the arrogant contempt of kids for adults who indeed proved fastidious cowards.

France, however, is different: Artists and intellectuals count there in a way they don’t in America. It’s ideal for such elite fantasies, therefore. Business counts much more in America, but also popular taste. And, too, America had a much sounder political basis, whereas in France the republic was younger than the protesters, and it was the fifth, so it seemed possible to make a sixth. The allure of power was part of the madness.

Anderson shows the students’ frivolity: Led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), they rebel when moralistic authorities want to ban boys from the girls dormitories, as well as because the boys face the military draft. But Anderson does not condemn their ugliness, their ignorance, ingratitude, and threatened violence.  He takes it as his rule to exclude the really ugly things in life and present even dangerous things like murder and revolution from the point of view of the aspiring elites who try to use them both as an oracle of democracy and a cause for activism, speechifying, and self-importance. Chalamet even becomes a Che Guevara T-shirt figure, which offends the left because he is obviously silly, and offends the right who remembers that Che was a brutal murderer. This cinematic point of view is abstract, apolitical, typical of our times. Our elites have long behaved as Anderson shows them, pretending that events are not political but their interpretation is, and whoever interprets them best should rule—themselves. Wars are fought with words, the better to let cowards escape real consequences.

Anderson wants to remember that midcentury liberalism for its aspirations, to see these elites as they saw themselves to the extent possible, but he is not a liar, so he mocks as gently as possible their cluelessness. What passed for sophistication was mostly confusion; what was worthwhile intellectually or artistically did not come from revolutionary impulses, but died by them—it came from older intellectual traditions, which indeed had a home in France much more than in America. The third story, which I can only introduce here, deals with this problem by introducting an American intellectual patterned on James Baldwin, who parades on TV his erudition and eccentric knowledge of the French scene. He’s called Roebuck Wright, reminding us of Sears Roebuck and of Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, who fled America for France. His subject is a French policeman called Nescoffier (Stephen Park), a mix of Nescafé and the great French chef Escoffier. It seems the moral drama of America, the race problem, and the grandeur of French culture are both inevitably mixed with commerce. This is in a way debasement, but it makes it possible to go on with life.

If you allow comedy to lessen the importance of justice, the movie is enjoyable and, in looking frivolous, reveals the abstract lives people then led; many do likewise now. If the movie seems like it depicts a cartoon life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The fantasies have changed, but people are no more grounded and serious now. In fact, our elites take themselves as seriously as do the silly people in the movie.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.