Escaping from reality – ‘The French Dispatch’

GUY WALKER greatly enjoys a playful new film, but finds it ultimately insubstantial

Early on in The French Dispatch we encounter an imprisoned murderer who takes the art world by storm with an abstract nude painting of a female prison officer, with whom he manages to conduct an affair, secretly painted in his French prison. After his release he conducts an affair with the female reporter – named Berensen, thus echoing the name of the art historian Berenson – telling his story. The wall in the prison canteen on which he painted a series of abstract murals is, then, air-lifted to an art museum in Kansas after slow motion mayhem has unfolded between prisoners, prison staff and denizens of the art world. Next, a middle aged female American reporter reports on and has an affair with the boyish leader of a soixante-huitard revolution, naturally conducted via chess moves relayed through a loud hailer, before she encourages the lad to sleep with a female revolutionary who contradicts everything he proposes on principle. He is then electrocuted in an accident on a radio tower. Finally French Police Noir, Maigret and Tintin-style are comprehensively elided with French haute cuisine.

By now we are in no doubt that the movie is modern, it’s post-modern, it’s meta, full of cutesy kitsch, it appeals to the child in us and it wilfully and proudly obeys none of the rules or the unities and satisfies none of our expectations. There’s slow motion and freeze frame and switches from colour to black and white, from real life to cartoon. We are put in mind of the labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges’ psyche, and Magical Realism takes a bow. It’s a complicated delight with an endless stream of puns, verbal and visual.
There is, therefore, also a Chef/Police Officer who, in a joke typical of the rapid-fire surrealist jokes that are sprinkled throughout, is called Nescaffier and is played by an American actor of Korean heritage. All of the stories are set in a fictional French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé which is actually parts of old Angoulême, the home of the French Comic-book Festival. The French Dispatch salutes in passing the art dealer Lord Duveen who enriched himself by satisfying the thirst of American millionaires for European art, the overweight and brilliant American writer on World War 2, boxing and French cuisine, AJ Liebling and Mavis Gallant, the Canadian chronicler of Paris in May ‘68 all of whom appeared in the famed New Yorker magazine as writers or subjects. It’s all very affectionate, charming and whimsical in the tradition of Amélie and The Budapest Hotel. The whole, pitched as ‘a  love letter to journalists’ is framed within the Foreign Bureau Magazine of the Liberty, Kansas Evening SunThe French Dispatch in which the stories appear in an obituary edition for the recently deceased editor and founder.
It’s studded with the stars, many of them current hot properties, who must make up most of Wes Anderson’s address book, many of them having appeared in his earlier films. All of the thespian brilliance and talent of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalomet, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Anjelica Houston, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Cécile de France, Rupert Friend, Léa Seydoux, Benicio del Toro, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and even Jarvis Cocker is showcased and shop-windowed to great effect. And that’s only half of the cast!
So, what do we think about all of this? How do we respond to it? It’s the nature of contemporary art and that includes le septième art, even when it’s set in other periods and unfamiliar places and, as this film is, studiedly untethered from any connection with now, to tell us something about the time in which it was made and the modern consciousness that made it.
Whimsy and Magical Realism, although they entertain and tickle us, somehow fail to satisfy us at a profound level. This is, perhaps, because of what they really are. Our modern zeitgeist demands the abolition of intelligence, wit, irony and humour for fear that they undermine or, perish the thought, laugh at the witless totalitarianism of identity politics and correctness. This means, in practice, that a ban has effectively been imposed on the brilliance of Western wit to exercise itself to its full extent in relation to the real contemporary world. The result of this proscription is that European and American wit, a sad and forlorn refugee, has had to migrate into intellectual exile, retreating into a green screen cultural vacuum where it cannot be incriminated by association with anything linkable to the actual modern world. In this instance it is welcomed into a French world set somewhere between the 30s and the 70s (thus allowing the existence of anachronisms like big-hearted show-girls) that is no more than the figment of someone’s imagination and is incontrovertibly ‘detoxified’ by being totally over and hermetically sealed in that vacuum. It is given free rein to do its soubresauts and pirouettes on condition that none of them mean anything or make any comment on our times. Wit can obtain as long as it is defanged and not dangerous to the status quo. And this is the sad comment on our times that the film, unwittingly, makes……