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Bright Wall/Dark Room January 2022: Place Cliché by Nathaniel Missildine

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the January 2022 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their January theme is 'The Best of 2021' and, in addition to "The French Dispatch," also features new essays on "Licorice Pizza," "Drive My Car," "West Side Story," "Get Back," "Midnight Mass," "The Souvenir Part II," "Pig," "House of Gucci," "Bo Burnham: Inside," "Undine," "Riders of Justice," and "Val."

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above art is by Tom Ralston.


1.

I walk to the mustard shop in the center of Dijon, the historic capital of the Burgundy region of France, where I’ve lived for years. The boutique has a display of its original deed conferred by the last French emperor Napoleon III, and offers the condiment—synonymous with Dijon—in dozens of flavor variations, straight out of brass taps. 

Down the same street, there is a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a Subway, and a shuttered bookstore currently being converted into a Burger King. The fast food customers are mainly young French locals. The moutarde shop customers tend to be outsiders, tourists, and often like me: very much American.

I like to think I know which of these is the more authentic French experience. I tell myself and others that where I live is idyllic. The reality is that, on so many days, it is not even remotely so. Like everywhere, it changes too for the better. Still, this foreign land that I now call home seems to be at its most quintessential when it resembles a movie I’ve seen before but can’t quite place.

To exacerbate this larger issue of mine, I went to a neighborhood showing of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun

There were multiple layers that felt like welcome homes. And it wasn’t only because I was a so-called expatriate watching it in version originale, English with French subtitles. Nor was it only because one of the characters returns from “National Duty-obligation service” in “the Mustard Region.”

As this character and his fellow student revolutionaries say, they only want to defend their illusions. Because the illusions of The French Dispatch are wondrous and sweet, and possibly vanishing. This singular setting and this singular filmmaker bolster one another, though, an inevitable convergence of two finely cultivated worlds—the outsider dream of France, and the extended universe of Wes Anderson. Twinned at last in the writer-director’s 10th feature film, The French Dispatch arrives less to entertain but to preserve and vow, in the face of a more pervasive sense of loss this time, not to change just yet.

2.

We get an embarrassment of characters as smartly charming as the big-name stars portraying them. Bill Murray is the expired editor who escaped the midwestern plains for the European locale where his newspaper supplement nurtured expatriate writers, played by Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright. Their selected stories are being republished, and shown to us, for the publication’s farewell issue. We start with an introduction to the surroundings, followed by three more standalone vignettes. Benicio Del Toro is a genius painter in prison. Timothée Chalamet is a student revolutionary. Stephen Park is an exclusive, renowned cook. Marking their own territory (aside from dual national dreamboat Chalamet), we have key French players: Léa Seydoux, Lyna Khoudri, and Mathieu Amalric. They slip in and out of their mother tongue, especially the enigmatic Seydoux as a muse and prison guard, giving orders and insights in French that the artfully positioned subtitles barely keep up with. Other sounds are Francophone, too. The composer Alexandre Desplat, as on multiple Anderson projects, provides the right kind of pomp in the music. Desplat has remarked in interviews about this milieu, “You can say it’s France, but it’s a poetic France.” 

Where, then, is poetic France located? The setting is the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Anderson knows that we know that’s a ridiculous name. It’s a way of reminding us that he himself is still sort of a ridiculous American (born and raised in Texas, no less). And it wouldn’t have served so well to use the actual name of the city where he shot all these scenes, Angoulême. Though, fittingly, this southwestern town is known for its museum and annual festival of comic books, which in France are a special, elevated art form. Otherwise, Anderson could have moved his elaborate sets to the adjacent, also actual town of Cognac. That name would have suggested something lavish and carefully distilled and best not swallowed in one whole gulp. 

So he sticks with a fantasy, somewhere between a comic and a spirit. French critics mostly went along with this particular dream, giving the already well-loved auteur the benefit of the doubt and suspending disbelief about their own stereotypes. Venerable film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma put The French Dispatch on their year’s top 10 list. The newspaper Le Figaro deemed the movie an Anderson collector’s edition. As for poetic clichés, a reviewer at France Inter saw it as a ‘gag’ that the brand of cigarettes the protestors smoke is called Gaullistes. The jokes remained buoyant enough. 

In the past, broader French caricatures have been deflected in-country to more specific targets. Local audiences generally found Inspector Clouseau funny because he looked like a mockery of inept functionaries. In the French dubbing, the Looney Tunes character Pepé Le Pew is not a stinking, horny Frenchman but an Italian who is thrusting himself on the Parisienne. In our time of streaming, the stock images of the series Emily in Paris appear on Netflix France as an embodiment of shiny oblivious luck that is awfully American.

Of course, there’s always room for preconceptions to do worse. The idea that France is overrun with mimes or superfans of comedian Jerry Lewis feels like an especially distant mistake. And sometimes it’s the rosier views that cause offense. I once had a conversation with a friend in Dijon expressing her outrage over the inaccurate stereotypes of Pixar’s Ratatouille. All I could say was “yes,” followed by “sorry.” She later took her kids to the new interactive ride based on the movie at Disneyland Paris. For my part, I enjoyed taking mine to Frontierland.

France may be the only country left in a position to sustain stereotypes from Americans without grave harm; America may be the only country left for everyone else.

Meanwhile, The French Dispatch gives us the tortured artist, the contrarian protestor negotiating in theory, and the particular gastronome. Anderson presents them as acknowledged, familiar figures in his adult playroom setups, but ones he will spring to new life.   

The French Dispatch premièred at the 2021 Cannes festival. But it lost the top prize to an actual French filmmaker: Julia Ducournau’s Titane was awarded the year’s Palme d’Or, and became France’s official submission for the Oscar Best International Feature Film category.

How did Titane and The French Dispatch manage to exist in the same year, let alone take place in supposedly the same nation? The motor and blood universe of Titane almost feels like a response to Anderson. One can imagine Ducournau just out of frame in the heavily memed image of Anderson and three of his stars on the Cannes red carpet, her eyes narrowing as she mutters to herself, “So you think France is whimsical?”

In the end, the whole endeavor may have nothing to do with France at all. This film is directly about The New Yorker magazine, whose typeface is blushing. The credits cite the real New Yorker writers and editors who served as inspirations. It was enough for the magazine to unapologetically name the film the best of the year, and for its current editor, David Remnick, to host cast members reading past pieces, an adoring kind of audio appendix to the movie. Trying to remain neutral, Anthony Lane in his review proffered that the closest aesthetic kindred spirit Wes Anderson has at The New Yorker is cartoonist Saul Steinberg. Indeed, of all the illustrated maps that have appeared in Anderson’s films over the years, one of them must have been of a colored pencil view over continents from an outsized 9th Avenue.

Only, in this case, Anderson has reversed the perspective. These missives have been sent from faraway quartiers back to the U.S. plains. For all the exotic Francophile quirk, this is a Kansas view of the world. 

3.

Owen Wilson reports on his bike in a hurry. He’s somehow the only character in a beret, as much French resistance as the prep school French Club from Rushmore. The gloriously crafted details of Ennui-sur-Blasé whiz by, each intricate and painterly shot needing a much longer study. The movie can feel like we’re being timed on a race through a museum of masterworks, like the scene in Godard’s Band à part where the characters run to beat an American tourist’s record through the Louvre.

This pace continues with an urgency that seldom allows our gaze to linger. Across the episodes, the film doesn’t push the through line of the editor’s office, and it doesn’t do the work of cohesion for us. Some viewers, anticipating the best Wes Anderson ever, expressed concern.

The film maintains its disjointed density, shuttling between aspect ratios and between the presence and absence of color. The façades of the production are moved before our eyes, going from real to fake and back. The narrative zooms, as per usual Anderson, in and out of framing devices, from the recounting of the story to the story itself. 

“The Concrete Masterpiece” is first a lecture from the Dispatch article’s author (Swinton), who leads us into our chapter of the incarcerated painter, his guard/muse, and his art dealer. The lecture is in picture-book color, while the prison is black and white. That is, until the first masterpiece is revealed in a burst of pink and orange. Its colors match the lecturing writer’s florid evening gown. This optically connects the two ladies, who, we learn, have both had affairs with the artist. “Do you see the girl?” the art dealer says, unveiling the abstract painting to his puzzled cohorts. “Trust me, she’s there.”

Similar things happen in the next piece, “Revisions to a Manifesto.” The reporter, played by McDormand, gets close to her source first by improving the young revolutionary’s words. It’s not quite the May 1968 Paris student uprising (events that shaped a generation enough to make the catch-all word in French for a boomer leftist soixante-huitard, a 68’er). Through Anderson’s lens, the cause is irrelevant, so their slogan is “The children are grumpy.” The gray palette of the protest blossoms into warm yellows at Le Sans Blague Café, no joke, as the mood of two of the children gets more passionate.

The journalist of the last chapter (Wright) is a New Yorker blend of James Baldwin’s searchings in Paris and A.J. Liebling’s writings on food. He gives an interview about “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” in television technicolor. He then enters his own story in a rich monochrome until the vivid hues of the chef’s food, the blue of Saoirse Ronan’s eyes and the primary colors of the animated climax.

By this point, we only begin to appreciate how Anderson made this movie the hard way. He delivers an avalanche of shots that are exquisite and complex even by his own lofty standards. A long tracking shot at police headquarters only becomes more dizzying on a revisit.

All of it is obsessive and probably genius and represents a filmed pinnacle of—to use a favorite expression of English speakers—mise-en-scène. Again, detractors have chimed in that it’s too much; Anderson’s signature style is so oversaturated as to be blank, and it results in less engagement with the characters. 

There may be a truth to the criticism. But to say the characters are too detached or too idiosyncratic for us to care dismisses the crucial moments where they reveal how alive they actually are. The movie may not wear its heart on its sleeve like, for instance, Moonrise Kingdom, whose focus lent itself to more sentiment. But the moments of humanity in The French Dispatch are all the more poignant because of the drawn-out deadpan artifice. 

Anderson’s characters perform like clockwork, but they’re always set to fall apart like people.

This can begin slowly. In Rushmore, Bill Murray unravels at his sons’ birthday party when he absently chucks golf balls into his swimming pool and then cannonballs off the diving board into a solitary underwater escape. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Owen Wilson utters the word “wildcat” for no reason during a television interview and walks away; in the watershed moment, he crashes his sports car into the family’s house. In the same film, Luke Wilson melts down during a pro tennis match; Gene Hackman is stuck with a shiv by his loyal friend. 

The wild always breaks out. It can appear in brief flashes, such as the dignified stop-motion animals of Fantastic Mr. Fox or Isle of Dogs going sped-up feral when eating or fighting (growls mimicked in Dispatch’s angry painter). There are the many examples of Anderson characters walking around casually bleeding, bandaged, or wounded. His storylines crescendo in a botched raid, a revenge plot, an escape, a siege, a chase, a kidnapping, a rescue, or a collision, and the pell-mell comic violence that ensues. These are staples of Anderson’s world as much as the symmetrical dollhouses and fastidious design.

As Wes Anderson becomes incrementally more himself with each film—from the suburban quirkiness of Bottle Rocket, to the layers of detail and stunning art direction of The Grand Budapest Hotel, to the byzantine new heights of The French Dispatch—more upheavals are needed.

Wilson crashes again and early in his latest Anderson role. His bike continues down the street by itself. The second chapter culminates in Del Toro’s artist hurling things at his dealer in a rage. The third takes its own falls. In the final episode, the set is demolished completely, police smashing through all three walls and pointing a gun through the fourth.

It might be the end. We have been watching, after all, a burial. An editor’s, and one for a now defunct publication. The conscientious, writerly caretaker from Kansas has provided his notes with each piece, a voice gone and beyond. Other idealistic characters and concepts will meet their end, or barely escape it. Much within this world might not be long for ours. 

Anderson seems to sense that there’s a eulogy waiting for him. This extraordinary director may have come into an awareness that he’s an endangered cinematic species. In his own protest, then, he heightens the meticulousness of his reveries. The French Dispatch can come off as too much because, at the same time as Anderson deepens his obsessions, each passing year makes his antiquated style—and the analog technology used to render it—only more anachronistic. The urgent pace of his latest film may be a race against the advance of modern storytelling and time itself.  

Yet here he is, Wes Anderson enduring. Like a poetic country we dream about. Or a curious magazine of human-interest stories. Or an original movie shot on film. Or a movie at all.

To keep all of these beautiful, exalted places thriving a little longer, Anderson confers a little more tenderness. Along with a mess, affection arrives to dismantle the set pieces, too. 

The imprisoned artist tells his muse he loves her; she says it can’t be. In turn, the lecturing journalist confesses that she carried on her own romance with the mad genius.

The student protest boils down to desire. After the reporter beds her virgin revolutionary source, she resolves the movement’s in-fighting with a heartfelt speech where she urges the two main malcontents to “Go, make love.” A version of the ‘60s French rock ballad “Aline” erupts from the café jukebox. This anthem for the film is sung by ‘90s Britpop rocker Jarvis Cocker, belting out the words to a departed belle dame in French, but accent screaming full Anglo. He knows enough of the language to keep the yearning forlorn.

It’s the writer and his prison chef, finally, who share the most affectionate scene of all. As the chef recovers from poisoning, he explains, “I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody. I’m a foreigner, you know.”

“The city is full of us, isn’t it?” the writer replies, “I’m one myself.” He proceeds to give what may be the most sublime line of dialogue of our entire besieged year of theatrical releases. 

I’ll spare my far-flung written word on it because it’s too good to repeat here. But, it’s about new sensations and the places we call home.

4.

My wife was born and raised in Dijon. My two daughters have a brown and blue passport apiece. They are all poetic in ways I never could have imagined in my most perfected fantasies. They also don’t care so much where anyone is from. 

It doesn’t stop me from asking if I belong in this country, to which they roll their eyes.

Then, they appeal to my ex-patriotism when they want fast food for lunch. I explain the heritage down the street of Napoleon III, and the defining event when Monsieur Grey started making the mustard with Monsieur Poupon. Nevermind that it became worldwide famous because of its “Pardon me…” catchphrase in an ‘80s T.V. commercial. I think of that ad now and wonder if maybe it was the first Wes Anderson film ever made.

I try to hold onto the hopeless finer things. I watched The French Dispatch with my family, who found the film funny and sort of a puzzle and of no particular nationality at all.

Later, I happen to remember the line about wanting to defend illusions. I write down other, smaller details I might have missed.

Like the flashback moment of the artist’s period of mental illness, where he’s painting a self-portrait sitting across from himself; the freeze frame shots with the camera rolling while the players hold a pose; the prison guard silently mouthing her name.

I write the words that prompt my own, that the manifesto appendix is “burst” and that “somewhere along…the boulevard, there was a table set for me.”  

I enter a new year like the idealistic protestor who wears the paper crown over his Epiphany cake, which every French viewer instantly recognizes as early January. 

And I still hear the song in my head pleading for Aline to ‘reviens,’ a cry to nostalgia itself and to the things that transform into a true splendor the moment they disappear, or inevitably fade out.

I’ve lived in a foreign country long enough to forget how the place seems. I don’t know which parts of my early high expectations and exquisite hopes were real. It was a dream, I think, but, as of late, it’s beginning to come back to me.

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