What Wes Anderson's new film gets right (and wrong) about France

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newspaper stand in wintery street (still from film) – Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

When it comes to depicting France, the dividing line between a clever pastiche and hammy cliché – an Amélie from an Emily in Paris, if you will – is often a slim one. It is a line that is absurdly and exuberantly trodden in The French Dispatch, the latest release from Wes Anderson, the Texas native who has fashioned the hipster aesthetic of a generation as the auteur of modern classics including The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The film’s madcap and whimsical capers centre around The French Dispatch, a high-brow periodical, based loosely but undoubtedly on The New Yorker. The action, filmed pre-pandemic in Angoulême, the pretty capital town of the Charente department, is set in the not-so-subtly-named fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé — it’s a sort of picturesque and picaresque Paris, where the Seine is reimagined as the dank and mysterious River Blasé.

As an English-speaking journalist living in Paris, and lifelong lover of a bit of gratuitous whimsy, I was keen to watch it for myself, and see how it measured up to my impressions of living here now.

(From L-R): Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. – Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

From the off, we are immersed in a fast-paced and densely packed world of high jinx and zany characters. In Anderson’s fantastical version of post-war France we meet a (literally) tortured artist living in an asylum, his sexy uniformed jailer who strips off to become his nude muse, an adorably ruffled student rioter (played by Timothée Chalamet, naturellement), and a transcendently talented haute-cuisine chef. And while the cultural tropes presented by these characters are, of course, exaggerated, there is some truth in them.

The film’s first vignette — the story of a murderer who produces era-defining artwork from inside his asylum cell – has the importance of art at its heart. While the association of France with the visual arts may be overdone, there is no doubting that this is still a society where art and beauty are seen as intrinsically valuable. As a practical example, the legally recognised status of ‘Artiste’ still brings privileges, such as access to housing, tax breaks and subsidised health insurance (with special annexes for art-related accidents).

Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. – Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The second story, starring Chalamet and Frances McDormand, has as its central motif a student-led protest movement in the style of the riots and general strike of 1968. Though stereotypical, it is also justly fitting that the theme of dissent should feature. In France, boots-on-the-ground street protest is still very much part of daily life, perhaps in recent years most famously represented via the weekly protests of the yellow vests or ‘Gilets Jaunes’.

The final caper, the tale of a kidnap recounted with panache by Jeffrey Wright’s James Baldwin-esque character, accurately underlines the value of food in French society, so much so that it is a haute cuisine chef who ultimately saves the hostage: fine dining saves the day. And, bien sur, throughout the film the power of sex and seduction are always present, via a charged artist-muse relationship, or a cross-generational affair between journalist and subject. This too is accurate: it is still a society where, for example, a GP will say quite earnestly and sternly that regular love-making is essential for good health.

aerial view of cafe-bar at night (film still) – Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

As much as The French Dispatch is a depiction of France, it’s also a depiction of the American intelligentsia’s projections onto the country. Since America and France first bonded over their shared disdain for the monarchy (and the English) in the 18th century, the two republics have continued to be tied throughout modern history. The city of Paris wears the marks of this relationship with statues of American statesmen, like Thomas Jefferson who stands opposite the Louvre, and avenues named after Kennedy, Franklin and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The distinctive iron architecture of the Eiffel Tower is twinned across the Atlantic, with the Statue of Liberty, whose inner structure was also designed by Gustave Eiffel.

The American press and literary set have long been fixated on French culture and today the Shakespeare & Company bookshop, which looks onto Notre Dame, is still a nucleus for cross-Atlantic literary activity, while the bar at the Ritz is named after Hemingway, one of its famous literary patrons. At the end of November, St Louis-born cabaret star and activist Joséphine Baker will become the first black woman to be interred at the prestigious Panthéon in the Latin Quarter, while an elegant municipal swimming pool on the banks of the Seine already takes her name.

For many Americans, but also other nationalities, who pin all their romantic dreams on Paris, the city can disappoint in practice. Some Japanese visitors have even been reported to suffer from ‘Paris Syndrome’, a term designating the acute depression felt by tourists who come to Paris to find that the French capital (like all cities) contains poverty, dirt, noise, rude people and other imperfections.

View on the Charente from the 4th Century Ramparts of Angouleme, France. – Jorisvo/iStockphoto

When Netflix’s Emily in Paris came out last year during lockdown, it was lapped up by a population in need of some dreaming, and derided by many for its one-dimensional take on the capital. Memes circulated abound in ‘expatty’ circles of the doe-eyed Emily confronted with the realities of life in Paris: ‘Emily breaks her leg and doesn’t have an elevator’, ‘Emily queues for a visa at the prefecture’ – the daily inconveniences that also define living here as a foreigner.

But, at the same time, the romantic view of La Belle France that Anderson conjures with his wonderfully symmetrical vistas are not so far from the reality of French aesthetics. When walking around Paris, I still marvel at what I see: the Eiffel Tower popping up unexpectedly on the horizon, or some impossibly French character nonchalantly smoking a cigarette on his elegant Haussmanian balcony. So often, Paris does indeed seem to pose as if it’s being framed by a director’s admiring eye.

(From L-R): Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky and Jeffrey Wright in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. – Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

In contrast to our more sanitised ‘Anglo-saxon’ societies, where things do tend to run more efficiently and logically, the foreigners living here perhaps appreciate the elegant chaos that The French Dispatch energetically evokes. In a scene near the end of the film, Lieutenant Nescaffier (the chef) and Roebuck Wright (the Baldwin-like journalist) contemplate the draw of their lives in France, concluding that they are ‘seeking something that is missing’ back home.

As well as telling the story of endless Frenchness, the film also evokes the endless outside fascination with the nation, and perhaps its capital more particularly, as a site of longing and dreaming. After the couple of years we’ve all had, I can’t object to that.

The most ‘Wes Anderson’ places in France

Angoulême

It’s quite charming to think of the film’s cast of Hollywood stars living alongside the population of this quaint, pretty town in the southwest of France. The little city is also the comic book capital of France, with a museum dedicated to the art.

Paris

Anderson first fell in love with Paris as a teenager. The city has been referenced in his work, notably in the short film Hotel Chevalier, which was actually filmed in Hotel Raphael in the upscale 16th arrondissement. Other Wes-like locations include the offbeat Museums of Hunting and Nature, and Fairground Arts, the curiosities at the Saint-Ouen flea market, and the art deco pool at Hotel Molitor.

Juan-les-Pins beach with rows of baby blue sunloungers – Alexandre Rotenberg /Getty Images

Antibes

Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ provides the soundtrack to Hotel Chevalier. The whimsical tune evokes the glamor of summers in Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, with its sparkling blue waters, rows of colourful sun loungers and palm tree-lined avenues.

view of river with pastel-coloured houses and flowers – robert harding/Digital Vision

Annecy

With its pastel-hued houses, narrow cobbled streets and glimmering lakes and canals — all against a mountainous backdrop — this Alpine town could easily be the dreamy setting of a Wes movie.

Cabourg

The kitsch, slightly faded glamour of this seaside town on the Norman coast mirrors Brighton et al. across the Channel. Surely its retro casino would make a fine frame for snappy Anderson dialogue.

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