by Anmol AhujaDec 29, 2021
Through the works of most modern auteurs in cinema, there is none perhaps who has been able to establish a visual identity so distinct, it would end up taking the auteur’s name itself, and being defined by it. “Looks like a Wes Anderson frame, doesn’t it?”, is now a common expression for any setting, temporary or permanent, that looks almost too pretty to touch, lest you bring disorder to the extremely precise arrangement. Mounting his films immaculately on a rather intimate scale, unbound in scope and vision, Anderson famously thinks ‘inside’ the box, displaying a keen sense of detail and an unparalleled visual resplendence in his works. The director has only refined his art with every successive film from Fantastic Mr. Fox to The Grand Budapest Hotel, perhaps hovering around a possible zenith with his latest, much-anticipated work, American comedy drama The French Dispatch: testament to all traits we now identify as Anderson trademarks and a solid step in the director’s quest to push boundaries, to tell stories that endear, spellbind, and delight.
Despite their distinctly-identifiable-from-a-mile-away visual character, Anderson’s works are not merely for the aesthete, even if most viewers with even the slightest sense of design worship Anderson on an altar, and would probably maintain a scrapbook of every doctored location he would have ever put to film. The characters he chooses to populate his worlds with bear just as much of a responsibility as the built environment they are in. The colourful playfulness of the production, if left uncomplemented by the sharp-witted, Chaplin-esque movements, would probably bear half the impact. Still, the “dollhouse” set designs Anderson and his regular collaborator create endure as tiny monuments, fragments of lived-in cities and spaces neatly framed and tied with a bow on top. Plainly, the characters may be the match, the spaces they inhabit, a powder keg, prepped for motion, catalysation, activation. The result, obviously, is explosive.
What is the Wes Anderson aesthetic?
The answer to this may not be a simplistic, definitive term, but the closest one may get to it is by understanding Anderson's body of work and its genesis. A lot of the near mechanic movements and machinations in his work are a result of the prolific director tackling the medium of animatic storytelling in his films, an art that he perfected over his course from Fantastic Mr. Fox to Isle of Dogs. Through stop motion and essentially bringing his storyboards to life, Anderson’s idiosyncrasy manifests in a warm, bright visual palette pronounced by soft pastel tonalities, and an architectural style deeply rooted in the post-war aesthetic of Western Europe that stands in stark contrast to the minimal, modern statements made by its Eastern counterpart around that time.
The French Dispatch: Of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
The film, described by Anderson himself as a “love letter to journalists”, essentially develops as an anthology film, a portmanteau collection of short stories that emerge from the writers of a fictional Kansas newspaper, due to publish its final issue on the occasion of the sudden death of its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (an endearingly eccentric Bill Murray). Anderson, who also shares writing credits for the film, described the stories he brought to life on screen as inspired by actual writings and writers of The New Yorker magazine, considered a cultural benchmark for Anderson and team.
The creative amalgam is probably best described in Anderson's own words: “The movie is actually three things: a collection of short stories, something I have always wanted to do; a movie inspired by The New Yorker and the kind of writers they are famous for publishing; and, I have spent a lot of time in France over the years and I have always wanted to do a French movie, and a movie that was related to French cinema.”
Angoulême to Ennui-sur-Blasé
The events of The French Dispatch unfold in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, that, in accordance with Anderson’s wish of directing a French film, happens to “stand in for all of France across time”. The city of Angoulême in the southwestern region of Nouvelle Aquitaine stands in for the rather aptly titled Ennui-sur-Blasé. Moody, macabre, sleepy, and richly jaded with layers and layers of history, the frames capturing the already few exterior shots of Anderson's kaleidoscopic adventure do more than setting the stage, lending a peek into what adapted beauty the city’s innards hold along with an oddly calming effect; one that is entirely unbecoming of the image of other major cities from that period. Present day Angoulême takes pleasure in merrily transporting you to a supposedly bygone era. The stacked up balconies and meandering drainage pipes along the facades of buildings surface as particularly interesting plug-ins.
“Angoulême had the right kind of age and architecture,” says production designer Adam Stockhausen, “but more specifically it had twists and turns and stairways and little viaduct crossovers, and all this really interesting and unique vertical stacking of interesting spaces. That made for beautiful frames”.
While the exteriors lend context, it is in a visual confinement of sorts that Anderson's vision really comes to life, and a bricolage of colour, fascinating props, and characters spelling zany are let loose. The sets of The French Dispatch office itself, and the settings of the three stories told through the film came to be set in an old felt factory in the town that the team converted to a miniature studio. More than 130 sets, varying in scale, tone, and expanse were erected, the most for (even) an Anderson film, for each different shot that was taken to stage the three parts of the anthology of short stories: The Concrete Masterpiece, Revisions to a Manifesto, and The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.
The Concrete Masterpiece
The first of the three parts of the anthology merges the pursuit of art with the often comical territory of its appreciation, and interestingly sets it within the walls of a prison. The story, about a criminally insane painter, Moses Rosenthal, and his magnum opus, unfolds through a lecture given at a Kansas arts centre by the writer of the story, enacted by Tilda Swinton. Rosenthal’s work is discovered in the prison and sold, despite his staunch refusal, by fellow inmate and art dealer, Julian Cadazio, quickly conjuring a significant fanfare that now breathlessly awaits his in-prison masterpiece: a series of abstract frescos that Rosenthal paints on the chipped concrete walls of his prison.
The segment presents an interesting contrast between the moments it splurges colour on to the screen, primarily moments wherein Rosenthal paints or displays his art, and moments where it robs the screen of it. The camera traverses every plane in the process of capturing Rosenthal’s eccentric process. Probably the segment that makes the best use of the colour-monochrome dichotomy, and that’s partly owing to its subject matter circling around art and painting, The Concrete Masterpiece makes the appearance of colour during scenes involving Rosenthal’s art feel like the Second Coming. As pleasing as Rosenthal’s erotic portraits of his muse, Simone, and his highly anticipated, years-in-the-making masterpieces that finally manifest on the walls of his prison are, the monochrome represents a certain process, while the colour, its fruition. Casting a subtle critique on art-circles, the segment oozes oodles of quirk, chemistry, and humour, and marks the beginning of what I believe to be a long list of future collaborations between Anderson and Benicio del Toro.
Revisions to a Manifesto
Casting a ‘Wes Anderson’ spin on a pivotal moment in 20th century French history, Revisions to a Manifesto casts the charming Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, the self styled leader of a student revolution breaking out in the streets of Ennui, and Frances McDormand as Lucinda Crementz, an idealistic journalist covering the protest, strongly insistent on her integrity as a press person. An almost forbidden romance blooms between the two, while Crementz helps him secretly write his manifesto for the protest.
The only segment that extensively makes use of the widescreen format to capture the energy of revolution, again, mostly limited to exterior shots, Revisions to a Manifesto has the bearings of a tragic romance. However, even the tragedies in Anderson’s world are turned upside down, seen through his uniquely tragicomic lens. Perhaps architecturally less significant than the other two segments, Revisions nonetheless brings alive a quaint neighbourhood jolted awake by the ongoing revolution, imagined from a real location. For Anderson, the second part of his anthology really develops “less than a block away” from the director’s current residence in Paris, near Montparnasse, where Mavis Gallant, the prolific journalist from Canada, the inspiration for McDormand’s character, lived, speaking volumes of Anderson’s endless fascination with journalists and of the written word, particularly of The New Yorker.
“She had so many great pieces and short stories that were published in The New Yorker over the years, often set in Paris. And she wrote about the events of May ‘68 from the point of view of our neighborhood. She was there for all of it and she kept a journal, and she wrote day-by-day about exactly what was going on. Our story is really intended as a kind of homage to her,” states Anderson on Gallant in a series of production notes released by Searchlight Films.
The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner
The most direct manifestation of Anderson’s famous story within a story (within a story) trope emerges in The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner. Narrated by Roebuck Wright of The French Dispatch magazine at a “Dick Cavett/David Susskind-style talk show”, the final segment of the anthology is squarely framed, filmed mostly in monochrome (except the talk show sequences that miss Anderson’s trademark pastel yellow, adorned instead in alternating stripes of white and aqua colours), and has Anderson’s meticulous, measured arrangement of props and players at fine display. This is particularly true for nearly all scenes that set their gaze upon Lt. Nescaffier’s kitchen. The characters in there, including Lt. Nescaffier (played by Stephen Park), religiously, rhythmically follow their routines, to be captured like clockwork by Anderson.
A number of sequences in this segment are also a departure from the singular focus of the camera in the first, and the confrontational two-shot in the second, focussing on the spatiality of the set to capture a greater number of characters. The shots of the titular dining room are particularly suggestive of that. Through being serviced directly by the kitchen in the background, succinctly divided into two peculiarly different halves by a decorative partition, the backdrop seems constantly animated. That, set against the ornate wooden furniture, and the apparent Necker Cube inspired carpet is a pleasing display, all cast in monochrome. Furthermore, the shootout scene, destined to enter the books of cult hall of fame, is tastefully well done, and uses Anderson's signature quick camera shift to encompass a marked change in perspective, highly reminiscent of a similar scene from The Grand Budapest Hotel . Coupled with the multiple shooters in the windows, hysterically captured in elevation, the scene becomes a definite highlight.
Despite feeling intricately doctored, The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s most ‘freely’ directed film. This is Anderson unbound, doing as he pleases. The best way then to enjoy the film is to hold on for the ride as it ebbs, flows, even falters, and zooms across in speed. One would inherently be happy to, given that Anderson deftly guides this star studded vehicle, fuelled by the sheer, immense power of his visual prowess.
Anderson has been famously indulgent through all his works, a way of being for him to create his art, and even by Wes Anderson standards, The French Dispatch sees him indulging till he creates a visual euphoria on screen. That euphoria may be more of a point of stoppage than the destination, something very characteristic of the non-uniformity of anthologies. Fortunately, Anderson’s process through it all stays uniform to create a film that is consistently watchable, maybe less so when contrasted with the vast audience The Grand Budapest Hotel captured.
The performances are all expectedly A-rate, coming from a host of A-listers, although the frequent criticism of the setting and the acts being too “orchestrated” to come across as layered, persists. It is nonetheless a film with frantic energy and a lot to unfold, all the while being visually perfect. Every frame, candy doused or monochromatic, square or widescreen, is a potential contender for a living room painting or a phone wallpaper at least. Akin to the culinary culture of the country it’s smitten with, The French Dispatch is an acquired taste, tough to prepare, and a stepping stone to Anderson’s yet to come masterpiece.