The Spool / Movies
Wes Anderson offers up another deceptively poignant dollhouse in The French Dispatch
The director's latest volume of manicured whimsy will turn off Anderson skeptics, but it's also one of his most vibrant, quotidian efforts to date.
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The director’s latest volume of manicured whimsy will turn off Anderson skeptics, but it’s also one of his most vibrant, quotidian efforts to date.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival.

At this point in his career, you know what to expect from Wes Anderson, he of the symmetrical shot compositions and fastidiously-mannered sensibilities. His films, especially ever since The Royal Tenenbaums, have gradually shifted towards more and more neurotically organized affairs, dollhouses and confections picked over with all the care and attention of a Michelin-star chef plating his latest dish. It’s a sensibility that’s proven divisive, and justifiably so: you’re either onboard with his particular twee quirks at this point, or you’re simply not.

His latest, The French Dispatch, is perhaps his most Andersonian work yet, one in which the incessant playfulness threatens to choke the screen with put-upon affectation. And yet, for those attuned to his charms (which, spare me, I am), it’s a slight, but accomplished, chapter in his well-manicured filmography.

Taking the shape and structure of a New Yorker-like periodical, The French Dispatch ushers us through a living rendition of the fictional newspaper’s final issue, a satellite branch of a Kansas City newspaper founded by its first and only editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Anderson stalwart Bill Murray). The reason this is the final issue is, well, because Arthur has died, and he has decreed that the paper will shutter on the event of his passing. So, as the film assures us, this film will serve as both chronicle of its various stories, and a broader obituary for Howitzer himself — a grumpy but supportive editor loosely based on the first editor of The New Yorker.

The French Dispatch (Searchlight Pictures)
(From L-R): Tilda Swinton, Lois Smith, Adrien Brody, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

As such, Anderson treats us to his first anthology film, using short travelogue columns and Arthur’s obituary to bookend the issue’s — and the film’s — three primary stories, all told largely through stark, journalistic black and white and Anderson’s typically-stuffed stable of actors. There’s “The Concrete Masterpiece,” in which a deranged, incarcerated artist (Benicio Del Toro) attracts the attention of a starry-eyed art dealer (Adrien Brody) who wishes to bring his strange, modern-art sensibilities (fueled by his muse, a prison guard played by Léa Seydoux) to the broader world. Then “Revisions to a Manifesto,” in which the piece’s author (Frances McDormand) falls in with a group of squabbling French revolutionaries (factions led by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri) during the student protests of 1968. Finally, there’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” in which a modest culinary chronicle about a burgeoning trend of “cuisine gendarme“, or police food, turns into a quest to rescue the son of the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric).

In the middle of these stories, acting as alternating narrator and erstwhile protagonists, are the authors of the pieces themselves, which gives The French Dispatch the added benefit of remarking on the precarious nature of storytelling itself. Like his tellers, he too is often stymied by his attempts to slot the often messy nature of human experience into an easily digestible form — he has the camera, they have the page. Some authors get too involved; McDormand sleeps with Chalamet’s boyish student revolutionary, and Jeffrey Wright’s food writer (a well-dressed gay Black man transparently styled after James Baldwin) gets drawn into the madcap chase to rescue the commissioner’s son. Swinton’s author, telling her story from a lectern with all the dry wit to which we’re accustomed of her, discusses Del Toro’s character’s work from a respectful journalistic distance.

Like so many of Anderson’s works, but maybe especially this one, The French Dispatch requires you to do your homework beforehand. There’s a litany of jokes and cultural/literary references that are designed purely to make you look them up later. (Anderson even helpfully provides a special thanks card that all but hands you a bibliography’s worth of reading to see the cultural signposts he’s drawing from.) Chalamet’s section is pure Truffaut, with its 400 Blows-y tale of misspent, idealistic youth; an animated chase sequence near the end evokes the adventures of Tintin in Hergé’s Belgian comic strips. An early bookend sequence with Owen Wilson ushering us through the town in which the film is set — the diagrammatic, fictional French fairyland of Ennui-sur-Blasé — echoes the physical whimsy of Jacques Tati.

And all of it is uplifted by Anderson’s innately precise, sprightly approach, taking to the anthology format like a duck to water and hauling out a few new stylistic tricks that are new even for the ever-experimental filmmaker. The Grand Budapest Hotel already saw him playing around with aspect ratio; that playfulness goes into overdrive here, flitting from 4:3 black and white to CinemaScope color from shot to shot depending on what we’re seeing. Subtitles float from bottom to top sometimes, their appearance punctuated by the actor’s percussive delivery. Food fights, riots, and more are depicted as charmingly imperfect tableaux vivant, actors frozen in place as Robert Yeoman’s camera pans from one direction to the other. Occasionally, you catch an actor shift or wobble, evidence that even Anderson’s most airbrushed gags let a glint of the human element through.

The French Dispatch (Searchlight Pictures)
The French Dispatch (Searchlight Pictures)

That’s the key to Anderson’s works, really: beneath all the flash and style of what feels like, on the surface, two-dimensional characters, The French Dispatch uses the format to talk about the way we process the passage of time and the things that happen to us — the little stories that we share during our short time on this planet. There’s an undercurrent of generational change throughout each of these tales; the montage of the concrete artist’s decades in prison (complete with Tony Revolori as the younger man passing the paintbrush on-screen to Del Toro once enough years have passed), McDormand’s envious yet wizened look at the self-serious and passionate youths around her, the magazine’s staff struggling to put their editor’s life into words in the way he’d like them. It cuts to the heart of why art and journalism are so important in the first place: contextualizing the events of our collective experience so we can remember them, and connect to each other across the cavernous gulfs of time and location and identity.

Critics of Anderson often deride him for his works feeling inhuman. I’d contend that it’s that arm’s-length distance that reveals an even deeper vulnerability that we might want to admit — that knowledge that the very act of dressing up your story in a million layers of artifice instead bares the insecurities you’re trying so hard to mask. In The French Dispatch, Anderson pays homage to the sophisticated human-interest literature that inspired him as a youth, and how fleeting that kind of indulgent yet probing work can seem in an era where the kinds of magazines the Dispatch represents are either dead or dying on the vine. By dint of its episodic nature, it’s one of his slighter works. But Anderson devotees will find plenty to love in its good-spirited, deceptively mournful tenor.

The French Dispatch is currently playing in select theaters.

The French Dispatch Trailer: