Last fall, my boyfriend went to see The French Dispatch with five of his friends and one of their fathers, who was visiting. Halfway through, he looked over to find that all six of them had fallen asleep.
Now perhaps this is an indictment of the male attention span, or the overwork of our day and age, or the lethargy of movie theaters. Yet this 85% knockout rate was a damning response; when I watched The French Dispatch for myself a few weeks ago, my expectations were low.
The French Dispatch is intended as an ode to The New Yorker, a cinematization of journalistic writing. On the surface, this seems like an easy task; aren’t all the best movies and all the best journalism just good storytelling? The result, however, is a segmented plot and a wordy script that relies heavily on narration. In Wes Anderson’s attempt to translate one form to another, he ends up creating an experience that does not quite feel like a movie, but rather like a visualized audiobook. While I did not fall asleep, I did feel that I was being read a bedtime story from a picture book.
In a way, there is something quite radical about The French Dispatch’s attention to language. Imagine an adaptation of a book that includes not only the dialogue and action, but all the words in between. Say Pride and Prejudice began not with Kiera Knightley strolling along the English countryside, but with Jane Austen’s iconic opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And not only that line, but the one after, and the one after that. This is not how we expect movies to operate.
Still, it is not necessarily Anderson’s commitment to words that is his downfall. Rather, what’s strange is that this commitment only goes so far: for all the emphasis on journalism, we know remarkably little about the writers themselves or their process. We are meant to take for granted that they are good at their craft, and that is meant to be enough. But the exhaustive literariness of the movie becomes wearying when the journalists are given so little depth of their own.
In particular, I found J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), the author of the first story, to be grating and unappealing. In one scene, she accidentally shows an auditorium of people a nude image of herself and describes her subject, imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), trying to “well, kind of, fuck me.” Beyond these two gaffs, we know very little about her or her relationship with Moses. Berensen is not the only one who has sex with the subject of her story. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) takes the virginity of the decades-younger French revolutionary Zeferelli (Timothée Chalamet). Krementz is given much more depth than Berensen, and we get the most insight into her creative process. Still, I found it difficult to get past the uncomfortable dynamic between the two amidst their large age difference. Notably, it is not only the female journalists who are treated this way, but their female subjects. When we first meet Simone (Léa Seydoux), Moses’s muse, she is posing naked. In every scene with Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), perhaps Zeferelli’s version of a muse, she is looking at herself coquettishly in a handheld mirror. Meanwhile, of course, the two stories told by men (Owen Wilson, Jeffrey Wright) involve no sexual intercourse. The only female character of note in the final story is the unnamed prostitute (Saoirse Ronan).
Despite these flaws, The French Dispatch remains a captivating and visually stunning film. Staged with metronomic precision, the dialogue forms a crisp rhythm. See art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) arguing with Moses over selling his piece: “It’s not for sale./Yes, it is./No, it isn’t./Yes, it is./No, it isn’t./Yes, it is./No, it isn’t./It is, yes. It is. All artists sell all their work. It’s what makes you an artist. Selling it. If you don’t wish to sell it, don’t paint it.” Perhaps this scene speaks to Wes Anderson’s own frustration with the commercialization of his work and the film industry. Perhaps Anderson’s goal was not to make a movie like we are used to, but to create a visual audiobook, with style over substance. After all, Cadazio bribes the prison guards with chocolate to get access to Moses and his painting. Isn’t the Wes Anderson style its own kind of deal between candy and art?