‘The French Dispatch’ Review: Wes Anderson at Full Tilt

They’ll tell you that Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, is a love letter to the New Yorker magazine. The charge sticks. This is a man who fell in love with the New Yorker in the 11th grade; who once bought a bound set of forty years’ worth of the magazine from U.C. Berkeley for $600; and who even, for a while, paid to have his new issues bound for preservation. He is also a director known for geeking out over his appetites, obsessions, and taste in his movies — even if the man himself is too well groomed for the phrase “geeking out” to feel appropriately tailored to the man. Nevertheless, The French Dispatch feels inevitable.

But thankfully not in the obvious ways. Anderson has always displayed affection for great craft — and for the artist-geniuses responsible for that craft, including the collaborators who’ve made his cosmetically pristine, well-coiffed cinematic style possible over the years. This, as much as his well-documented stylistic habits (the tragicomic romanticism and nostalgia, the fantastical insistence on visual balance and emotionally coded-color schemes) is what has defined his movies. It is, for me, one of their better qualities. In Isle of Dogs, a scene of sushi being prepared renders the practice into an art form and the chef, hands nimbler than a heart surgeon’s, into an artist. The Grand Budapest Hotel gave us a prison break so clever that it’s almost more memorable for the crafty resourcefulness at play than for the suspense of the scene. The escape is too cheekily conceived for triumph not to feel like a foregone conclusion. Better to let it play like a Rube Goldberg machine: You watch to see how they did it. And you watch to see what contraption of a world the equally clever Anderson has invented to capture them doing it. 

The French Dispatch, the director’s tenth feature, differs for being an anthology film — four stories for the price of one. Yet it pays similar tribute to the ingenuity and style that have defined Anderson’s previous features. It is a magazine in movie form, taking its title from the fictional French Dispatch, a Sunday supplement to the also-fictional Liberty Kansas Evening Sun. Anderson, who per usual wrote the script, unfolds the film article by article — starting with front-of-book local color by way of a bike tour through the magazine’s headquarters of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, a place where altar boys wreak havoc on the elderly for laughs and an average of 8.25 bodies per year gets fished out of the local river. It is, like the settings of most of Anderson’s movies, a place that mixes the real with the just-short-of-real, too perfect not to feel manufactured on a soundstage, yet so rife with histories and personalities, stories and idiosyncratic details, it can’t feel entirely fake.

A great place to be a magazine writer, in other words — as the French Dispatch‘s editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), fully knows. That’s why he convinced his father, owner of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, to afford him this little outpost, this collective of quirky artist-journalists and the odd stories they’re prone to tell. More than just an anthology, The French Dispatch is a nesting-egg of a movie, one that treats the people therein — not only the writers and editors, but the subjects who’ve inspired their articles — with the same dedication and gleaming awe as Anderson gave that sushi chef and those prison escapees. Four writers, four stories, each overstuffed with a gallery of (in the usual Anderson style) eccentric, emotional personalities. Everyone becomes a part of the story. And genius, the film argues, can crop up in unlikely places: in an asylum for the criminally insane; in the kitchen of a police commissioner; in a youth movement being taken for granted by elders who can’t see the passion underlying the fractured, warring, romantic idealism. 

This is all gathered, with effortless speed, within the framework of the French Dispatch‘s last issue — the issue chronicled in Anderson’s movie. It is Howitzer’s unwitting parting gift to his writers and readers before, out of nowhere, he dies. The writers on staff, with their ESP-level typographic memory, their grammatical prowess, and their delightful verbal excesses, may or may not know how this will end: with Howitzer’s will dictating the closure of the magazine upon his death. So when he does croak, a fate made known to us early on, the magazine inescapably dies with him. This, the movie signals, is it. Like Grand Budapest before it, The French Dispatch is something more than a survey of those Andersonian qualities which, for the people who haven’t warmed to his films, are easy to characterize as twee, try-hard, quirky bullshit. It’s a testament to bygone creative ideals — including the right to enjoy quirky bullshit for its own sake. More than that, it’s a tribute to the people who make those ideals worth dreaming up to begin with.

In The French Dispatch’s best moments, Anderson serves up interpretations of, not just nods toward, the writers who’ve inspired him so. For a quick sense, look at the movie’s end credits, which begin with a dedication to a long list of New Yorker luminaries and their peers, from editor William Shawn, who helmed the magazine from 1952 to 1987; to founding editor Harold Ross (on whom Murray’s character is somewhat based); to a legion of classic New Yorker scribes, or fellow star-writers in their orbit, ranging from intrepid staffer Lillian Ross to non-staffer Luc Sante, still one of our most vital chroniclers of not only New York life, but of the other Paris

These are, by and large, legends from a past era of that magazine, or more broadly, what might seem like a bygone era of roving, curious nonfiction. A smaller crew of writers stands in for that ideal; they’re the people “writing” the stories that The French Dispatch depicts. In one such story, Frances McDormand plays Lucinda Krementz, a riff on the Canadian flaneûse Mavis Gallant and her classic dispatches from the May ‘68 uprisings, which Anderson transforms into a wry, if nearly trivial, story about a student revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) and a clash of generational ideals. In another, Jeffrey Wright plays Roebuck Wright, a Black American writer and expat in the style of James Baldwin who’s also a chronicler of food and all its mysterious pleasures, à la A. J. Liebling, that New Yorker legend who ate his way through Paris with verve.

Owen Wilson’s bike-riding travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac, meanwhile, mixes a little bit of the razor-sharp Joseph Mitchell with a bit Luc Sante, and for good measure, adds a dash of famed photographer Bill Cunningham, a man taking stock of a city from the purview of a bike seat. Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, plays J.K.L. Berensen, an art lecturer and insider in the style of the theatrical Rosamund Bernier, spinning a fascinating chronicle of a Jewish-Mexican artist-prisoner named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), his prison-guard muse Simone (Léa Seydoux), and a cleverish, opportunistic-yet-sincere art dealer named Julien Cadazio (Adrian Brody). Cadizio is another touchpoint, a character drawn not only from real life but also an actual New Yorker story: S. N. Berman’s six(!)-part profile, from the Fifties, of the art dealer Lord Duveen.

A regular, one-volume Anderson movie would already be teeming with talent in front of and behind the camera. (On the latter front, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, composer Alexandre Desplat, and others of Anderson’s key collaborators have returned to produce worthy work here.) The cast is as abundant: Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Henry Winkler, Griffin Dunne, Lois Smith, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Liev Schreiber, Grand Budapest’s Tony Revolori — some of whom only have one-scene roles, or a handful of lines, or no lines. They’re all distinct apertures into the broader world that this movie has built. Take any of them out and you’d feel the difference. 

If it isn’t clear by now, The French Dispatch is not a neat, one-to-one assemblage of real people and their Andersonian fictionalizations, the kind of project that calls to mind the Coen Brothers’ Hollywood references in Hail Caesar!, in which the allusions stacked up so thoroughly that the movie risked seducing the audience into treating it like a treasure hunt. You could very well try to revel in The French Dispatch in the same way.

But the truth of Anderson’s movie arrives, like its best details, in miniature: in the smaller gestures, the looks that mark the end of key scenes, the uncanny webs of affection that define the stories — such as the moment that Revolori, playing a younger version of Del Toro’s murdering artist-saint, appears beside his older self, tugging the story from past to present tense through a gesture that feels near-ceremonious. Something unexpectedly affectionate plays out between these two actors, these two versions of the same man.

We often talk about what makes Anderson’s films feel so artificial, how their style risks suffocating any actual ideas, how it heightens the humor and the melodrama in ways that ultimately serve only to stifle them. The French Dispatch offers a counterpoint to this misunderstanding. It is a sterling example of what’s so movie-ish about his movies: the tactile visual fictions comprising cinema’s primary terrain. Anderson is still committed to using artifice to stoke, rather than stifle, pure emotion; he wants to mix and match pleasure with melancholy with humor with the occasional suicidal jag. And he still wants to remind us of the power of the camera, of the need to detail characters’ environments to an obsessive degree. It’s is a style born of collage: fantasy colliding with felt-reality. The movie’s exteriors were, in fact, shot on location in Angoulême, a town in the southwest of France. Even then, it’s France by way of Jacques Tati: whimsical by design, a cityscape just waiting for someone to notice that it’s a playground in wait.

Flipped through and sectioned off magazine-style, The French Dispatch feels unusually busy, with everything Anderson’s learned how to do over the course of his career culminating across the movie’s four episodes (five, counting the frame story). Every chapter is a feast. McDormand’s take on Mavis Gallant, for example, is rich for taking the real author’s cool detachment and manifesting it as something far less hands-off. Hers is a story concerning Parisian youths at a key moment in French political history, and while Anderson’s style gives it all a veneer of playful apoliticism, McDormand’s character does not have the privilege of that distance. She is forced to think seriously about “the pimple-cream-and-wet-dream contingent,” as she calls them, and what they’re asking of their elders. “I am convinced,” she concludes, “they are better than we ever were.” And yet she is one of the elders; their ideals, she writes, are “luminous abstractions.” She could very well be describing Anderson’s take on May ‘68, on revolutionary politics, on the place of the ironically detached observer amid real ideological tumult. Yet she and the movie nevertheless see the power and promise of those illusions, however vague its sense of the actual politics. And it turns out she’s something of a romantic herself — whether or not her prose would admit it.

Del Toro’s “literally tortured artist,” the protagonist of the Lord Duveen chapter, would admit it. This is a story about a murderous genius who signs up for an arts and crafts class, in prison, to keep his hands busy; he is suicidal. He falls in love with a prison guard, Simone (Seydoux), as former fellow-inmate Cadizio (Brody) falls in love with his scrappy, surrealistic paintings. Much happens. And, per Anderson, one of the most charged and enduring details arrives with so much panache you almost miss it. It’s a half-minute of twisty, ironic split-screen storytelling. To the right: a horde of art dealers and wannabe-geniuses packing themselves into what looks like an ore cart, burrowing toward the innards of a prison asylum to see a mad-genius-murderer’s 10-panel prison fresco. To the left: the hands of prison officials tallying up the bribes that make this strange excursion possible.

This particular storyline is a chronicle that could otherwise, not inaccurately, be written off as yet another Anderson tale of a depressive male romantic and his picture-perfect fantasy-muse. Just don’t ignore this part: An art dealer tells a suicidal, homicidal artist that he isn’t an artist unless he sells his work, and the artist ultimately responds… with a fresco. A masterpiece painted onto the walls of a prison-asylum’s hobby room. Impossible to sell. Impossible to reproduce. Impossible to broadcast beyond the prison’s walls. Unless, of course, you have the money to buy those walls. 

It’s an odd but effective tale. Romantic, yes; sad, yes; even a little kinky. The Baldwin-inspired final chapter, about Roebuck Wright, somehow outdoes it. Anderson seems to know that Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” (published in Notes from a Native Son) is a touchstone example of an expat wrestling with conflicting feelings of love and alienation for homes both old and new. So this chapter — a firsthand account of the kidnapping of a police commissioner’s son that was supposed to be a story about the commissioner’s extraordinary personal chef — emerges as yet another kind of story: the lonely rumination of an outsider. Loneliness is a thread that links the French Dispatch writers’ lives, even that of big-toothed Tilda’s Swinton’s chic art expert.

Anderson, himself an expat living in Paris, may know a thing or two about the sentiments at stake in Baldwin’s essay, though of course his experience is not the same as Baldwin’s, for the obvious reasons. Still, he lands on something special in this chapter. Look at the brief digression in which Wright describes how he landed a job at the French Dispatch in the first place — a story that starts with him being arrested for being gay and landing in a cell called the Chicken Coop, which sets the stage for reliable Anderson gesture of emotional transference when, visiting that jail to write on it later, Wright sees another prisoner in the coop. He immediately understands something of the man; when a weekend passes without the man being fed, Wright notices. He puts it in his piece. 

This is what’s happening while, in the foreground, the two other threads — the kidnapping of a genius boy; the delight in a masterful chef’s cooking (this is the A.J. Liebling influence) — flutter about demanding our attention. It would seem that there is too much going on here. But Anderson weaves a careful, clarifying thread throughout, one that may not be fully apparent until the chapter’s very last moment. It is set back at the offices of the French Dispatch, when Howitzer, editing the piece, rescues a line from the trash heap, an exchange of dialogue that Wright could have cut only out of fear of what it exposed of himself. Howitzer, recognizing this, advises: Put this back in the piece. It’s the best part. It really is. Seeing that cut segment of Wright’s essay after the fact, Anderson chips away at a sad, subtle point. And it somehow boils down to this: A writer, an editor, a superhuman feat of understanding.

Every section of The French Dispatch ends this way, right back in the offices of the magazine, with Howitzer, generous even when skeptical, wrapping things up by offering notes on each piece. He complains, he critiques, but not really. His talent is for seeing straight to the heart of the story; his trust in his writers a given. It is a trust so stripped of sentimentality (“No Crying,” read the words above his office door) that it cannot help but be sentimental anyway in Anderson’s hands, earnest in its depiction of what artists need in order to flourish. 

Nearly every story here offers the one-two of a vulnerable eccentric paired with a guardian, be it a loving parent or a prison guard-cum-modernist muse. Howitzer is one such guardian — for his writers. A rapid-fire editorial meeting at the film’s start confirms as much: Writers are Howitzer’s people. He forgives them their dangling modifiers and poetic excesses. He forgives breaking the rules — so long as the writer has honored a repeated, near-sacred pact, to make these deviations seem as if they’re exactly what the author intended. Every writer here breaks a cardinal rule of journalism: Don’t become the story. It’s a shame that, in the case of the two female writers ferrying us through this film, Anderson slips into the wearisome trope of women journalists sleeping with their subjects — even as, in the case of McDormand and her young revolutionary, the humorous improbability of the endeavor readily lends itself to one of the movie’s most compelling ideas. The writers of The French Dispatch can’t help but tell us stories about themselves. Their hapless willingness to abandon journalistic disaffection is what draws the line, the movie seems to say, between journalism and art, between straight reporting and the more candid, uneasy paths born of curiosity and sympathy run amok.

We could extrapolate from here to make claims about what Anderson must be trying to say about art, and the benefactors and guardians whose support makes free artistic expression possible. There is certainly much to be said on that front regarding the movie industry, even by a director who’s benefitted from precisely the safeguarded and encouraged freedom of style denied many other filmmakers. It’s no wonder he uses this movie in particular to throw in every Anderson trick, from a comic-strip sequence to tableaux vivants to shifting aspect ratios; his classic speed-ramped panning shots; his set-miniatures a la The Life Aquatic; a literal play within the movie — all of it. Ever since Anderson delved into stop-motion animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox, even the director’s live-action movies have begun to feel animated in spirit, the control-freak perfection of his images proving themselves to be too alive to what images can do to stick to the straight story.

It’s a liveliness that Howitzer would have encouraged. The French Dispatch honors it movingly. Anderson’s specific love for the New Yorker is more than apparent. What proves equally if not more vivid is what, exactly, this love affords. The movie is an anthology not only of vibrant magazine stories come to life, but of seemingly everything Anderson knows how to do as a director. For some, this will inevitably feel more like a limit. For the rest of us, it’s one of his best. Even when the film doesn’t entirely work, there is, simply, joy in watching Anderson work.

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