The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is more Wes Anderson-y than ever in The French Dispatch

More of the same is fine by us as far as this American auteur is concerned.

As the mainstream American film landscape becomes even more homogeneous in terms of style and variety of content, one thing that has almost disappeared is the love-it-or-leave-it auterist touch. In other words, there are far fewer filmmakers whose strengths and weaknesses are exactly the same. People who love Wes Anderson’s movies love them for almost exactly the same reason as those who do not. This remains a more widespread practice in other forms of art, whereas film has become less divisive on that front, with people instead waging all-out wars about the perceived depth and maturity of superhero movies. You could accuse Wes Anderson of essentially always making the same movie, falling deep into his ass crafting extremely precise dioramas of bourgeois production design, hip needledrops and ever-expanding casts of characters peopled almost entirely by A-list stars giving curiously affected performances. You could also, as I’m about to do, praise him for it.

Elisabeth Moss Owen Wilson Tilda Swinton Fisher Stevens
Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne

Granted, that reading of Anderson’s work is a bit short-sighted. Though The Royal Tenenbaums has a lot in common with The French Dispatch on the surface, its raw emotion and naturalistic performances make it seem practically like cinéma vérité when you put it up against the infinitely more deliberate dollhouse approach of Anderson’s latest. Not all of Anderson’s movies are the same, but the argument that they are getting increasingly more Wes Anderson-y over time is difficult to rebut. The French Dispatch is structured like an anthology film, which has the peculiar property of allowing Anderson to vary his style a bit within the same film while also remaining firmly on the surface for much of it, owing to the relative short running time of each segment. In other words, it has absolutely no interest in converting any detractors.

Bill Murray plays the editor of The French Dispatch, a newspaper insert for an otherwise unremarkable Kansas newspaper that has kept an outpost of ex-pat journalists in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé going for nearly 50 years. The film opens with the editor having passed away and, as per his wishes, the newspaper being folded. A crew of journalists and employees (including Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne) gather in order to put together a memorial issue gathering three memorable pieces from the paper’s past. 

The first is an assessment of the career of a convicted murderer (Benicio del Toro) turned painter whose muse just so happened to be his prison guard and lover (Léa Seydoux) by a leading art critic (Tilda Swinton). The second is an account of a young student protest leader (Timothée Chalamet) by a journalist (Frances McDormand) who becomes his friend and perhaps lover, while the third focuses on Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a food writer based loosely on James Baldwin, who recounts a tale of being invited for dinner at the home of a high-ranking policeman (Mathieu Amalric) when his son is kidnapped by criminals led by a moonlighting chauffeur played by Edward Norton.

Benicio Del Toro (centre) and Lea Seydoux (right) The French Dispatch
Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch is shot in 4:3, with the camera remaining mainly static to showcase the precise framing of each scene. When the camera moves, it’s to reveal the even more elaborate, diorama-like constructions that have Anderson working within the clean clutter of French bande dessinée. Though the chief inspiration for the whole of The French Dispatch is definitely the glory days of The New Yorker, The French Dispatch also functions as a catch-all for the Gallic aesthetic obsessions that have almost certainly led to Anderson moving to France full-time. Some of the jokes and wordplay are pretty corny to French speakers (starting with the on-the-nose name of the town and extending to a character named Chou-Fleur) but it would be downright impossible to suggest that Anderson has anything but love and admiration for everything depicted here, from the overt parodies of ’60s film style to the French chanson stylings of Jarvis Cocker-voiced lothario Tip-Top. 

The visual aspects of The French Dispatch are frankly what I enjoyed the most about it. Anderson packs his frames with a level of detail that really scratched the itch that I’ve felt ever since I was a child poring over Richard Scarry books. If the extremely fine-tuned and unnatural blocking of Anderson’s work hasn’t always been my favourite aspect, he really stretches it out to the limit here. I’d always rather see a filmmaker with a specific (albeit precious) visual style than one with a generic approach.

The French Dispatch

Suffice to say that if, at this point, you’ve already been disgusted or put off by one of the things I’ve outlined above, The French Dispatch will not convert you. Anderson has refined his formula to a point where he’s beyond even preaching to the converted — he’s preaching almost exclusively to himself. I happen to be absolutely enamored with this navel-gazing, look-at-my-shit approach to filmmaking, even if I cannot argue against the fact that The French Dispatch is hermetic and affected to a fault.

It seems hard, looking at a movie like this one, to imagine that Anderson will ever make a film as emotional and affecting as The Royal Tenenbaums or The Darjeeling Limited. Yet I don’t think that The French Dispatch is necessarily a step back for Anderson — if anything, it’s a lateral move, a film that’s somehow lifeless in the traditional life and bursting at the seams with life in a more esoteric one. I’d be a bit disappointed to see Anderson cristallise into the knit-tie version of Roy Andersson, but then again, Roy Andersson is pretty good. I’d still take that over Wes Anderson making movies based on toys from the ’80s. ■

The French Dispatch opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 29.

The French Dispatch, directed by Wes Anderson

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