Skip to content

Wes Anderson Is Good, Sorry.

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Searchlight Pictures


I’m not ashamed to say I liked The French Dispatch, and I don’t really mind Anderson’s whole schtick either ⁠— the fact that he’s developed a distinctive style and a preferred set of characters and themes can’t reasonably be counted as a strike against him, especially with a film like Dispatch that also has at least a little bit to say narratively. At the surface, it’s about journalism and the heyday of print media, a subject that really doesn’t need to be romanticized further ⁠— apart from its structure and the nifty visual devices Anderson uses to mimic magazine formats, I didn’t find myself caring or thinking too much about that aspect of the film at all. On a more interesting level, Dispatch is an exploration of creativity and what it requires ⁠— putatively individual genius or inspiration, Anderson says throughout, is, more often than not, the work of many hands and the product of community. A madman has masterpieces coaxed out of him by a caring muse and an exploitative, but admiring art dealer. A young man’s revolutionary manifesto is partially ghostwritten by a pitying older woman. A master chef uses his talents to feed a local police force. These stories are written, refined, edited, packaged, and finally told by a team.

But only the writer gets the byline. Likewise, it’s a film’s director that usually gets the lion’s share of credit for what audiences see onscreen. And it occurred to me watching Dispatch that it may well be Anderson’s meditation on his own work. After all, a “Wes Anderson” film, like nearly every film that reaches cinemas, takes the effort of hundreds; the quirks and affectations we’ve come to think of as his personal touches are executed in a process more akin to factory production than a lone eccentric whittling away at some twee arts and crafts.

It’s weighty, painstaking, and determined collaboration that makes his films feel as light on their feet and whimsical as they do; consciously or not, Dispatch thematically reflects the way it was made. And there’s been a good amount of coverage on all Anderson’s team had to do behind the scenes. Indiewire talked to production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and composer Alexandre Desplat; SlashFilm’s run interviews with editor Andrew Weisblum and set decorator Rena DeAngelo. But my favorite of these articles ran in Artnet⁠— a piece on Sandro Kopp, Sian Smith, and Edith Baudraud, the real artists who made the paintings of the film’s Moses Rosenthaler:

Kopp called Smith up shortly after she graduated the New York Academy of Art in 2018. Within a week, she was on a plane to Angoulême, France, where production on The French Dispatch took place in an old felt factory.
“I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, so obviously I jumped at the opportunity,” she told Artnet News. “It was this crazy busy environment, but so creative and very inspiring.”
Fresh off the intensive oil painting curriculum at the academy, Smith was tasked with creating Rosenthaler’s smaller early works. With Baudraud’s assistance, Kopp took on Simone Naked, as well the 12-foot frescoes that are the artist’s late masterpiece—and feature in the story’s dramatic climax, in which Cadazio bribes the prison guards to stage a hotly anticipated reveal for a select group of wealthy art collectors.
The artists worked for over a month on the production. Anderson provided the basic storyboard images, but wanted the figurative works, inspired in part by the work of Swiss painter Félix Vallotton, to be painted from life—which sent Smith on a wild goose chase, looking for out-of-season cherries to finish Rosenthaler’s The Fruit Bowl.
Couldn’t they have just worked from a photograph as a reference, you might wonder?
“No, no, no, no, not on this production,” Kopp said.
“I spent a day wandering around the tiny town trying to find them, and I asked the props department to look when they were going to Paris,” Smith said. “In the end, we couldn’t find any cherries, so we used red currants!”

At Vanity Fair earlier this month, Cassie Da Costa offered a rejoinder to those who doubt Anderson’s characteristic fussiness really amounts to anything:

[F]ilm is a fundamentally visual medium—one where even ugliness or unevenness is a choice, a signifier that, in plenty of films, replaces actual character development or thoughtfulness. A visually beautiful film, of course, isn’t necessarily good, either. But dismissals of Anderson’s work as “twee” or “cold” or “precocious” reveal a kind of disinterest in the ideas that images—and not only speeches and interactions—put forth.
Once we understand film as its own medium, and not just as a conduit for other kinds of storytelling, Anderson’s style reveals itself to be much more than the contents of a Pinterest board, “inspo” for design obsessives worldwide, or clever play by a wealthy man-child. His stylistic signature lays groundwork for more expansive, often troubling ideas that poke at the surfaces his images project.
[... ] As time goes on, Anderson’s visual style stays consistent. His narrative style, though, has become more restrained. Where Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums included multiple beats of emotional disclosure—immediately endearing us to each film’s fairly pathetic protagonists—Budapest and Dispatch tease out an emotional landscape with subtlety in dialogue and gesture. It’s easy to perceive this maturation as a loss of depth, since traditional Western storytelling structure compels us toward emotional release—but even in Anderson’s later films, there’s still so much happening onscreen beyond what characters say or show on their faces. Over the course of just one vignette in Dispatch, del Toro’s blank expressions are carefully layered with strokes of color as the ruthless art world assembles around him and his muse, Simone (Léa Seydoux). There’s a literal layering too: Throughout this vignette, black-and-white images are interrupted with flashes of color. Look away for an instant, and you might miss an unfolding architecture of human complexity, with nearly every moment building up to some deeply personal revelation.

At Jacobin, Luke Savage wrote a generally warm review that took a critical look at the film’s detached, off-kilter rendering of history:

In The French Dispatch, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel, history itself comes in the form of pastiche, rendered as quasi-ironic echo rather than straightforward retelling. This is most apparent during the “chessboard revolution” sequence, where May ’68 is not quite May ’68 but also not quite not May ’68: whimsical student militants rebel against “a thousand years of Republican authority” while seeking to destroy a “neoliberal imperialist project,” and Timothée Chalamet plays a kind of manic-pixie-dream version of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
It’s all a romping good time, but both people and events are so dehistoricized that the takeaway is most often an amused sense of nostalgia without a creative thesis beyond how things look and feel. Anderson’s project is a highly appreciative one and, for what it’s worth, he clearly intends to pay tribute to his subjects rather than patronize them. The resulting ironic distance, however, sometimes turns these subjects into gossamer, evoking them as detached reference points rather than solid or tangible objects. This is in marked contrast to some of Anderson’s biggest influences, particularly figures of the French new wave like Godard, who believed deeply in the political (and even the revolutionary) potential of cinema and actively sought to conscript it in the service of political ends.
This is not a knock on Anderson or his style per se. The French Dispatch is a hugely entertaining and beautiful film, and I’d happily sit through it a dozen more times before going to see most of the movies that now tend to make it into theaters. In an age of assembly-line culture and CGI-induced visual uniformity, Anderson’s nostalgia for the sights, sounds, and tastes of earlier eras is both refreshing and praiseworthy. It’s also, however, worth being nostalgic for a time before our collective sense of history’s forward momentum had ground to a halt, and the past could be shown to us as something real and tangible rather than as a quasi-ironic object to be rendered in glistening effigy.

Finally, at The New Yorker, the publication the Dispatch was made to honor, Richard Brody reflected on the power of aesthetics:

Anderson approaches serious matters not by displaying the authentic pain that they entail but, rather, by letting it ricochet off other, related subjects—he arouses emotion more than he displays it, and, in the process, associates ideas to the feelings. His sense of extreme artifice allows him to bring together, into salient relationship, subjects that belong together, whether or not they’re often found together in real life as clearly and blatantly as in his films. His views of society’s turbulence, individuals’ violence, and institutions’ cruelty are inseparable from the sense of style that heroic resisters bring to it—and that group includes both the people who confront crushing power and those who report on it. (They’re sometimes the same people.) “The French Dispatch” is filled with the practical aesthetics of clothing, architecture, furniture, food, design, and discourse; it’s also filled with beautiful deeds and sublime gestures, steadfast love and physical courage, amid hostile conditions. There’s a long-familiar tradition in film of refinement meshing with evil, as with the epicurean sadism of movie Nazis and arch-criminals. It’s a demagogic trope that comforts viewers who presume that, conversely, their ordinary tastes must be a sign of their ordinary decency, too. But Anderson understands that the refinement of style can be a way of outwardly facing down the power of the world with one’s inner personal imperatives. Like such artists as Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks, he brings together the beauty of heroism and the heroism of beauty. In a sublime gesture of his own, he celebrates not only unsung heroes and those who tell their stories but also those who, like Howitzer and his staff of grammarians and illustrators, provide an accompaniment as stylish and as substantial as the adventures and inventions themselves.

Is beauty ever really heroic? I don’t think it ever needs to be. But I think Brody’s right that Anderson deeply believes it can be. And that makes his work as substantively interesting as it is nice to look at.

That’s all for today. I’ve got a Letterboxd if you’d like more of me on film, by the way.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

The Daily Beast:

Exactly a week after former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss unveiled the creation of a hypothetical new “university” stacked with advisers united by “a common dismay at the state of academic and a recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry,” two riders in that brave regiment have resigned their commissions.
Robert J. Zimmer, the chancellor of the University of Chicago, and Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, quit the University of Austin’s advisory board on Monday.
“As is often the case with fast-moving start-ups,” a statement from the University of Austin said, “there were some missteps.”

Good night.