Just as the exhibition at Fondazione Prada was a rather brilliant update of the Wunderkammer concept for the Instagram age, “The French Dispatch” is an evolution of the concept of the diorama; it is no coincidence that in the film, still images often freeze the action diorama-style. Three episodes and a prologue offer up a catalogue of French culture and history, multiple references (Jacques Tati and the 1968 riots, Jean Dubuffet’s art brut and nouvelle cuisine) freeze-dried, fetishized and made ready for consumption after all the problematic, radical, and subversive elements that they originally possessed have been stripped out. Everything is reduced to aesthetics, to a visual tour de force with a gimmick in each scene to captivate and comfort viewers, the conflict eliminated or reduced to inter-family dynamics. Politics are banished from Wes Anderson films. Like its predecessors, “The French Dispatch” is a tourist romp through a France recreated in Angoulême that exists solely in its auteur’s imagination; given that his cinema is escapist, it could be described as “set design cinema”, like tourists merely skimming over the surface before moving on. At a historical time when the concept of “cultural appropriation” is often used (and sometimes abused), if we question the director’s modus operandi, we may encounter a strong dose of cynicism in reducing complex cultural and historical trends such as the avant-garde or 1968 into simple gags. There’s clearly nothing illegitimate about doing so, and yet one may wonder how much love there would be if some other equally cinephile, citation-happy director like Quentin Tarantino had made a masterpiece like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by rebuilding a lost world, saving it rather than exploiting it. With its appropriation of pre-digested imagery repositioned as formalist diorama, Wes Anderson’s cinema ends up feeding the current demand for innocuous art and festering retromania, a deathly proliferation of the past that sequesters the possibility of the future and the unprecedented.
Having stated these problematic issues, it should also be noted that, at a second and more interesting level of reading, the film does not suffer from any form of intellectual dishonesty. The stories’ themes reflect their own manias through self-disclosure: tourist-literary rhapsody, collecting (what is this parade of stars, from Tilda Swinton to Thimotée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton, if not another form of collecting?), and pastiche.