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When Will Women Stop Being Subject to The Curse Of "Inspiration"?

The Stack takes a closer look at the portrayal of women in Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch

By Lola Rose Wood

16 November 2021

he irony of writing an article about a film that purports to be a series of magazine articles is not lost on me. But if Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic gem, The French Dispatch, is able to transmogrify a magazine into a movie, it seems only fair that his movie, in turn, be translated back into article form – albeit an online one.

A riff on and tribute to the New Yorker, the French Dispatch sets out to prove that print journalism is anything but dead with a roster of writers and infamous typographic layout.

Contrary to certain popular reviews which claim that viewers of Wes Anderson’s latest film will find their ‘patience sorely tried’, there is nothing slow-paced or tedious about any of the film’s four self-contained stories.

At a modest run time of 1hr 48mins – frankly a relief after the bladder-testing lengths of both Dune and No Time to Die – I was unconditionally swept up and lost in the pantone-palettes, gripping narratives and doll’s house scenes for every single one of those minutes.

As was my unsuspecting partner, who has never seen a Wes Anderson film before, and who’s film watching attention usually only extends to bro-flicks and action movies. Time will fly. It will also have you adding The New Yorker subscription to your Christmas List (and the matching tote.)

As is often the case with such showily star-studded casts – although not usually Anderson’s – the roles played by several heralded actors were disappointing. Particularly the actresses. For fans of Ladybird and Little Women – who were understandably excited at the prospect of another Timothée Chalamet x Saoirse Ronan collaboration – be warned: Chalamet and Ronan do not appear in the same story, let alone the same scene.

What's more, Ronan’s talent is disappointingly demoted to a few lines. I waited patiently for her character to actually do something, but it seems her role was simply to ‘have very blue eyes’. (More on Anderson’s female “characters” later.) Similarly, Elisabeth Moss of Handmaid’s Tale fame, mouses onto our screen in promising pastels to play the magazine’s grammar-obsessed copy editor. Sadly, that is all we get.

This is perhaps Anderson’s most ‘meta’ commentary on developed Western society, from its culture to its politics. We are shown the stereotypical tortured artist – in this case literally imprisoned and strapped to an electric chair – alongside his female muse (naked and loved unrequitedly, of course), and the shrewd art-dealer-cum-con-man, who builds his entire career off of the simple observation that Europe has plenty of art and America has plenty of money.

My favourite comment on so-called ‘Modern Art’ has to be the art dealer’s test of whether the tortured impressionist artist has real talent: ask him to paint something simple, say a duck, and if it is the most perfect duck you have ever seen, then his abstract swirls of fleshy oil on canvas are most certainly masterpieces.

Similarly, the journalist of the second story, Lucinda Krementz, who reports on an anarchist rebellion of grumpy, chess-playing university kids, offers a dazzlingly humorous exploration of so-called ‘journalistic neutrality’. Krementz very quickly finds herself in bed with the wild-haired, cigarette-smoking kid at the centre of the uprising (played by Chalamet) and – with strict ‘journalistic neutrality’, of course – post-coitally edits his ‘manifesto’ with a rather heavy hand. There is sharp insight and moving poignancy to be found in every story.

A fortnight later, and stills from the movie still flash in front of my eyes each time I close them. Anderson’s films never fail to be visually stunning and perpetually playful: a city of tiled rooves that crawl with sleeping, slow-stepping cats like a living creature; a subterranean city of rats; the skinny student anarchist with electric-shock-hair, clinging to the top of his makeshift radio tower; a literal cartoon police car-chase, complete with a caricature strongman stuck to the windshield like a fly. Mingling the high romance of Sarah Bah Bah’s photographs with the expensive gloss of a Condé Nast Travel magazine and the kitsch comedy of a postcard, the images of this film will haunt you – in the best way possible.

“The female characters in The French Dispatch feel slightly lacking all round. Compared to the flavour-searching chef, notorious police sergeant, prodigious son and homesick author”

The film’s first long-form story, ‘The Concrete Masterpiece by J.K.L Berenson’, was by far my favourite, and most infuriating, story. Why are we still being faced with depictions of the artist’s muse atop her literal and figurative pedestal, standing stark-naked and malleable at the hands of a male artist, mining her body for inspiration?

It reminds me of a short story I read recently, in which an artist’s nude female model is exhausted by him so entirely in his search for inspiration, that all that is left of her is a dark stain, a shadow. When will women stop being subject to this curse of ‘Inspiration’?

Whilst Lea Seydoux brings real human depth to her prison-guard-cum-muse character, she is the film’s only fully fleshed female character – and yet she is still stuck in the Angel/Monster dichotomy that so many women are. Seydoux’s character oscillates between the artist’s angelic muse whom he loves unrequitedly, and a Dominatrix-inspired prison guard who shocks and locks him.

This limiting dichotomy was first highlighted by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar almost half a century ago – and yet it is a stereotype still on our screens today. But the female characters in The French Dispatch feel slightly lacking all round. Compared to the flavour-searching chef, notorious police sergeant, prodigious son and homesick author (all male) of the final story, the two female journalists who come before feel less three-dimensional.

Indeed, all we really seem to learn about their characters comes in connection to their relationships with the men they are writing about. Anderson seems to imply, however unwittingly, that in order for a woman to be capable of top-tier journalism, she must sleep with her subject matter.

The Short Stack

We take a closer look at the portrayal of women in Anderson’s latest film

By Lola Rose Wood

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