Upon its widespread release in the fall, I gathered with fringe leather jackets, cub scout badges, and ironic cigarette holders to watch the latest Wes Anderson film. The French Dispatch showcases the strongest of the eccentric filmmaker’s talents, his firm control of mise en scéne and his purposeful (at points, literal) cinematic cartoonishness borrowed from some of my favorite 20th Century arthouse films. Fans of auteurs like Varda, Godard, Hitchcock, and the other usual suspects can delight in the film’s visual homages to cinematic history (to an extent that I found audacious, even for a known cinephile like Anderson). However, after the credits rolled, it was Anderson’s influence from the stage, not the silver screen, that lingered with me into the night.
In The French Dispatch, I find a sense of the dialectical, of the theater with its overhead lights and creaky risers. I find Bertolt Brecht’s epic form, only out of focus, muddied by the bourgeois values of the neoliberal era. I am assured of non-reality, of the film as an object, an artifact outside anything I could experience. In fact, the director employs his Paris-by-way-of-Dallas charm this way throughout his catalog, granting the viewer space to admire the emotional removal and self-involvement of charming, often-affluent protagonists. The sharp banter and elaborate sets in each of his films draw attention to the spectacle of the films themselves, away from anything like immersion.
In Brecht’s plays, his cues leading audiences away from the naturalist immersion of storytelling and toward the theater as an unreal portrayal (his breaking the fourth wall, his narrators and movements into song, and so on) were meant to prod the viewer into meaningful engagement with their own historical circumstances. The apparent falsity of the performance was reiterated and drawn parallel to the real-world concerns of the audience.
In Anderson’s work, the viewer similarly finds a distinct unreality, in part through the director’s flattening of physical space into something like a painting. This is seen when he introduces the title character’s ship in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and through his clear visual references to the historical and cinematic successes of those who preceded him, such as his apparent nod to Hitchcock’s 1966 film, Torn Curtain, in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which mirrors the Hitchcock film to render an on-screen pursuit that is both familiar and stylistically Anderson’s, thanks to these trademark quirks. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the viewer again finds the fruit of Anderson’s methods through his colorfully flat portrayal of the eponymous hotel building in a stand-in Eastern European state during the late 20th Century, pink and dirty, rundown and glaring like a promise never kept but still remembered.
The viewer finds in Anderson’s work a supremacy of both film and high art, differentiating his cinematic form from Brecht’s dialectical theater. Where Brecht sees revolutionary potential and empowerment of the masses, as he does in 1939’s Mother Courage and Her Children, in which Brecht portrays a war-torn Europe to encourage his audience to resist both Nazi Germany and the coming world war, Anderson finds ethics of warm affluence and nostalgia, of the individual quirk, and of bourgeois aesthetic control.
Even when Anderson comes closest to the revolutionary subject, which he does in his 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the story of a community of woodland animals resisting oppression from powerful local farmers, he creates value through aesthetic control of both form and content. Anderson’s Mr. Fox (George Clooney) dons a fashionable sportcoat, shows the malleability of outside limitation by pushing back against those who somehow wish to keep him from what he wants (regardless of whether it is a member of his family or one of the villainous farmers behind the imposition), and reassures both the audience and the cast of woodland characters of on-screen safety with a cool whistle, all through the director’s careful control of stop-motion animation.
In short, the aesthetic is king for Anderson. Critics take note of his style for its sense of precision and twee rather than its human expression. The precise framing and odd-duck visual charms give way to a fetishization of the 20th Century American bourgeoisie, most apparent in films like 1998’s Rushmore with its portrayal of private-school-precocity, and 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums with its Salingeresque New York City apartments and intrusive display of high art. This fetishization bares itself in each of Anderson’s films, and French Dispatch is no exception (one of the film’s vignettes centers on an art dealer’s attempts to cash in on a prisoner’s abstract paintings). The aesthetic sensibility of the Anderson catalog is wrought with playful reminders that the film is not just an object, but an object reflective of (or at least aware of) refined taste, presumably, Anderson’s.
Indeed, refinement and decadence fill the frames. In Anderson’s world, the viewer finds curated clean lines, paintings and sculptures, literature and plays in striking print, at every turn (See: The Royal Tenenbaum’s New York brownstone, the island cottages in 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom). Even in Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket (1996), in which the protagonists come from working-class backgrounds, the specter of Anderson’s high art values reveals itself in his decision to shoot portions of the film in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed estate. When Anderson later turns toward labor in The Grand Budapest Hotel, lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) must acquire a penchant for bourgeois finery, the quality that separates the film’s lead, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), apart for the viewer. In fact, it is this penchant that centers him as the film’s worthy subject.
Anderson has faced criticism for his portrayal of largely white, upper-class characters in contrast with the roles of workers and people of color. As the viewer becomes aware of Anderson’s on-screen values, they must, like Brecht, take on the dialectical mindset to best understand the infusion of revolutionary form and bourgeois content, placing Anderson in the context of the neoliberal turn of the last half of the 20th Century.
Something, then, can be said of Anderson’s seeming intellectualization of high art in a middlebrow presentation. The director’s cinematic rise near the turn of the 21st-century reflects a Clintonite understanding of upper-middle-class politics. The perceived material boom for certain Americans after the collapse of the Soviet Union dangled the promise of sophistication for sale to upwardly-mobile urban-dwellers and their monied suburban neighbors, and new money college graduates could find for themselves a short bridge between pop culture and high art without succumbing to the shibboleths of the fading aristocracy of the Regan and Bush eras before them.
With this material background in mind, it is hardly a wonder that Anderson has directed commercials for SoftBank and American Express, for the likes of Stella Artois, Prada, H&M, AT&T, Hyundai, and Sony. His highly-stylized advertisements have connected common products and the arms of finance to sophisticated notions of film as elevated art, to visual reassurances of certain standards of taste and cultured cool. Of course, Anderson is not the first director of artistic merit to commercialize his talents. Supper won’t pay for itself.
Anderson’s synthesis of a revolutionary method of presentation and apparent bourgeois tastes and values, however, sets the director apart as a surprising emblem of the neoliberal era. This does not mean that Anderson is expressly “in on” the broader neoliberal project. In fact, he described Fantastic Mr. Fox as both “anarchic” and “a bit communist” during a 2009 London Film Festival press conference. Rather, the form of his cinematic touch is a reflection of the desire for opulence in the 21st Century United States and the willingness of filmgoers to fall in love with Anderson’s dreamlike worlds, where bourgeois ideas of refinement and taste reign supreme.
Perhaps Anderson’s art-filled worlds even gain value in the American cultural zeitgeist as access to such bourgeois refinement falls further from reach for American audiences in the wake of capital crises like the 2008 recession and ongoing upward wealth redistribution. Regardless, Anderson has no problem filling theaters. The director’s tenth film brought in the highest average theater sales since the beginning of the COVD-19 pandemic during its limited opening weekend.
So, when Anderson’s viewers next don their fox masks and hand-stitched oceanic explorer’s uniform for a viewing of The French Dispatch, (which is, at the end of the day, a delightful film), perhaps it would be best that they consider Anderson’s cinematic nods toward the past and towards the film’s construction as a film. Maybe, in the Brechtian spirit, they can find the real in the gap between the material world and Anderson’s worlds, where high art grows forth from the bourgeois malaise of the neoliberal era.
Anderson, Wes. Bottle Rocket. Sony Pictures Releasing. 1996.
Anderson, Wes. Fantastic Mr. Fox. 20th Century Fox. 2009.
Anderson, Wes. The French Dispatch. Searchlight Pictures. 2021.
Anderson, Wes. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fox Searchlight Pictures. 2014.
Anderson, Wes. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Buena Vista Pictures. 2004.
Anderson, Wes. Moonrise Kingdom. Focus Features. 2012.
Anderson, Wes. The Royal Tenenbaums. Buena Vista Pictures 2001.
Anderson, Wes. Rushmore. Buena Vista Pictures. 1998.
Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children. Grove/Atlantic, 1963.
Cowden, Catarina. “Whoopi Goldberg Calls Out Wes Anderson for Not Casting More Black People, Volunteers.” Cinema Blend. 22 June 2015.
D’Alessandro, Anthony. “’Dune’ Heaps $41m Domestic Opening after near $10m Sunday; Highest for Denis Villeneuve & HBO Max Day and Date“. Deadline. 25 October 2021.
Editors. “Bertolt Brecht“. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Gross, Terry. “Wes Anderson: ‘We Made a Pastiche’ of Eastern Europe’s Greatest Hits“. NPR. 12 March 2014.
Newby, Doug. “Bottle Rocket 1996 – The Gillin Residence. Casting Architecture. 5 December 2012.
Reynolds, Simon. “Anderson: ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox Is Communist.’” Digital Spy. 15 October 2009.
Sharf, Zack. “Wes Anderson Is an Advertising Genius: 15 Amazing Commercials Directed by the Indie Auteur — Watch.” IndieWire. 23 March 2018.
Shields, Meg. “How Wes Anderson’s Nod to Hitchcock Exemplifies What an Homage Should Be.” Film School Rejects. 14 July 2021.