The French Dispatch (2021), the latest of Wes Anderson’s cinematic ventures, is many things – an intricate satirisation of youth political culture is one that many audience members may not have anticipated. Based on the journalism and history of The New Yorker, Anderson has described the film as a combination of three things: ‘Anthology, The New Yorker, and a French movie’.
The film consists of an obituary, sketchbook and three stories as contained in the final edition of ‘The French Dispatch’, the Sunday supplement of Anderson’s fictional newspaper The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Lucinda Krementz’s ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ is the most evocative feature – enlisting the events in Paris during May 1968 as the archetype of student political protest – Anderson’s sophisticated yet vibrant animation explores the intricacies of what it means to be young.
The manifesto to which the title of the story alludes belongs to Timothée Chalamet’s almost perpetually naked Zeffirelli. The young man and his manifesto are the principal subjects of the article written by Jounalist Krementz, played by Frances McDormand. One of Krementz’s final observations on ‘the touching narcissism of the young’, is perhaps the most symptomatic of the entire piece – emotional yet conceited the young protest from a place of idealised inexperience, to Anderson there is no tragedy in this but an irrefutable naturality.
Congregating in the Café Sans Blague, a name with a certain ambiguity implying both the utter seriousness and ridiculousness of their movement, is the ‘Movement of Young Idealists for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Reactionary Neo-liberal Society’ colloquially called the ‘the pimple-cream and wet-dream contingent’ by Krementz. Anderson’s naming choices exist within a larger comment on language and style – the young revolutionaries may align themselves with such inflated rhetoric, but that is exactly what their movement will remain, there is no articulation beyond such language.
Thus, the oscillations between academic and inarticulate are what characterises much of the piece. Scenery further builds the image of such inarticulation. When at the barricades, posters read ‘I know what you are but what am I?’ and ‘Nous ne sommes pas sleepy’. Their slogan ‘Les enfants sont grognons’ transforms them into characters from a Salinger novel, the young are discontented with their reality, but the exact object of their discontent remains elusive. Therefore, their principal demand must be ‘freedom, full-stop.’
In this way the carrying of a ‘highbrow/semi-unreadable paperback’ by each member of the group ‘at all times without exception’, as is indicated in the screenplay, is a way of carrying their identity like a shield, the pages existing as a blanket of selfhood. Mediating on current styles and fashions they present themselves in such a manner, their ‘slang mixed bits of Latin with philosophy jargon and manual signaling’ in order to appear articulate yet they remain fundamentally unknowing, attempting to navigate an adult world in which they feel no place.
Their mode of protest is revealing, Zeffirelli’s preference for chess reveals their barricades simply to be borrowed imagery – they preach a revolution but remain within the confines of the game. Set choices reveal further details about the young and their barricade. When Zeffirelli and Juliette leave, a door is opened within the barricade for them to do so – the barricade is constructed, it is not to keep others out but protects those inside from the realities which lurk beyond it. Further images of their protest reveal the same desire to conform, books are checked out of the library en masse, but are returned before any fees can be issued. There also exists a shocking triviality to the movement, all of their goals are abstract – they play chess and are not violent because they are not motivated by the saliency of a reality in which they are not privileged, and their main desire is not sexual freedom. They should have no anxieties, but instead have taken it upon themselves to alter the fundamentals of the social contract – as each generation historically has felt they should.
A comment should also be made on Zeffirelli’s personal character. Always naked and ‘shy about his new muscles’, an ironic comment given Anderson’s initial description of Chalamet’s Zeffirelli as ‘skinny, wild-haired, electric’ we see a young man who both preaches for change yet violently refuses to transgress any boundary. He remains adolescent in the use of his multi-colored ballpoint pen and with his deep concern for the opinion of his mother. He stumbles through moments of both insecurity and confidence, he asks for her comments then insists ‘I don’t need remarks’ – embodying the greater dynamic of conviction yet insecurity on which Anderson wishes to comment. Juliette, played by Lyna Khoudri, persistently checking her image in a compact mirror, is further evidence of this – it should be asked again, is this vanity or insecurity? The image of her as a strict ideologue crumbles with her admittance ‘je suis vierge’ and her apology to Krementz, in her inexperience Krementz exists as a mentor to her too.
The universality of such a youth experience is made evident in Krementz’s degree of agency. When she remarks that Zeffirelli’s manifesto is both ‘metaphorically’ and ‘physically’ damp, she is speaking both from her maturity and the memory of such a sentiment in her own youth. If she can correct the manifesto, it must speak to a universal conception and memory of the youth experience. This idea is confirmed when in his impassioned defence of the manifesto, Zeffirelli proclaims that his manifesto is as such ‘by definition’ – he is a revolutionary yet cares deeply for convention.
There is a certain hyperfocus on the sexual and the romantic. Beyond Zeffirelli’s nakedness, many romantic subplots intersect, such as the insinuation of a brief relationship between Krementz and Zeffirelli and the relationship between Zeffirelli and Juliette. Sexual freedom also exists as one of the key campaign points. While dormitory access was a demand made in 1968, in the context of sexual liberation, it was not as focal as Anderson has it appear. Demands made as part of the student protests in 1968 were wildly more complex – considering the spheres of economics, politics and social hierarchies. However, it is not this historical accuracy which underlines Anderson’s motivations. His focus is directed towards experience, or lack of. Principally, in this case, first experiences of the sexual. As Krementz demands they need to ‘Stop bickering. Go make love’.
The ending of the story is only fitting, Zeffirelli’s death allows for an attempt at memorialisation which acknowledges the desire for recognition which permeates the whole piece. Zeffirelli’s brief evasion of reality fades with Krementz’s acknowledgment that ‘he will drown on this planet’, as he has succumbed to teenage reality his image will only reverberate – ‘mass-produced and shrink-wrap packaged’ his image ‘will be sold like bubblegum to the hero-inspired – who hope to see themselves like this’. Zeffirelli is universal, as is this experience of adolescence.
Thus, the real motivation behind their revolutionary zeal is not the political desires they exude but the destruction of the teenage reality in which they exist. As Krementz suggests, in their desire to create a ‘free, borderless, utopian civilization’ they are ‘answering their parents. What do they want? To defend their illusions. A luminous abstraction’ Their manifesto makes this comment for them ‘Le Sans Blague: A Manifesto’, the irony is there is a joke, it’s themselves and their idealism but this is natural and immutable.
The provocative juxtaposition of aesthetic and reality which underscores Anderson’s animation is essential to the perfection of his satire. Such perfection lies in the fact that while it is hilariously veracious, with its stylised depiction of the political projection of youth angst, it does not offend as blatantly as much satire does. We recognise an element of ourselves or society, our idealised adolescence may be eternal, but we can also acknowledge our pretentiousness and the hilarity inherent within it. The generosity of Anderson’s satire may lie with the journalist who inspired the piece. Krementz is inspired by Mavis Gallant, and as Anderson describes in the preface to the screenplay, she is a journalist whose work is conducted with ‘deep feeling and understanding’ she is a writer who sees ‘the young people not how they see themselves, not how their patents see them’ but instead ‘really does love and admire them’.
A singular comment is not adequate to explore the nuance in one, let alone all the sections of The French Dispatch, a testament to the ingenuity and erudition of Anderson’s latest film.
Written by Georgia Smith
2021. The French Dispatch. Directed by Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman. 2021. “The French Dispatch.” London: Faber & Faber Limited.