‘The French Dispatch,’ Wes Anderson’s overstuffed valentine to classic magazines and New Wave cinema
Wes Anderson’s films always have the feel of elaborately-staged dioramas, and The French Dispatch is his most sophisticated shoebox story yet. Every time he expands his scope, he drifts a little further from actual feelings. 1998’s Rushmore is still his masterpiece. Even in The Royal Tenenbaums, you can feel his attention starting to scatter.
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The new movie is set in a New Yorker-inspired literary magazine in small-town France in the 1960s. Has there ever been a more Wes Anderson-esque sentence than that? It’s a collection of four sketches portraying stories in The French Dispatch, an outpost of a Kansas paper set in the village of Ennui-sur-Blase, whose name is not Anderson’s best work. The French insert is edited by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), over whose office door is the motto “No Crying,” and whose favorite advice to writers is “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
Nearly every actor from Anderson’s regular troupe is here: Owen Wilson, Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Anjelica Huston (her voice, anyway), Saoirse Ronan. Endless new additions, too, most notably Jeffrey Wright and Dune’s Timotheé Chalamet, who is adorable as ever, if veering towards serious overexposure.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Timotheé Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody
Running time: 103 mins
The French Dispatch has been called a love letter to journalism, and it really is. I don’t know how much mass appeal that will yield, but as a former, longtime staffer for a New York tabloid, I can tell you it made me long for the good-if-problematic old days. Smoking rooms! Bombastic star reporters who took calls at the bar! Weeks-long deadlines and travel budgets! I was once chastised for not using my expense account enough. Can you imagine? Anyway, I don’t know the New Yorker well enough to tell you who’s who here, but the magazine will be happy to do that.
My favorite section was the second one, an entry in the Art and Artists section, whose author, J.K.L. Berenson (Swinton), delivers a lecture on her piece in a diaphanous orange gown with hair to match. Her story’s about an asylum-incarcerated murderer (Benicio del Toro) and his beloved muse (Lea Seydoux), a prison guard who poses nude for his modernist paintings. Adrien Brody shows up as a fellow inmate-turned-art dealer who convinces his partners (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler) to make del Toro’s character a modern art star. Chaos ensues, sometimes in a tableau vivant, a retro pasttime tailor-made for Anderson’s obsession with piling detail upon detail.
The fourth and final section is also great, with Wright’s Tastes and Smells columnist narrating an unexpectedly harrowing dive into the world of police cuisine. Chalamet’s segment is a little more uneven. McDormand’s character is covering a student rebellion, over boys not being allowed into girls’ dorms, with Chalamet as their leader, Zeffirelli. His refrain, “I feel shy about my new muscles,” feels like a hilariously awkward translation of something that would make more sense in French. There’s a Harold and Maude-esque scene of the two in bed, a pairing you never knew you needed. But the segment doesn’t really cohere. It’s more of a mood. The whole thing is a mood. French New Wave, mostly.
If you come to The French Dispatch loving Anderson, there’s much to continue loving here. Endless clever turns of phrase – such as Wilson’s jaundiced, cycling reporter chronicling “schoolboys half-drunk on the blood of Christ” – and the most miniscule, perfect frills everywhere you look. Subtitles that pile up on one another at the top of the screen. A couple of fantastic animated sections that nod to Chris Ware‘s intricate illustrations.
Watching a second and third time, I imagine, you probably still wouldn’t catch them all. It’s a very “Where’s Waldo” approach to filmmaking. I’m here for it, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t also make me feel slightly dumb for not getting every reference. As much as anything else, this is a love letter to a rarefied audience with an encyclopedic knowledge of the New Yorker and early French cinema. The rest of us mouth-breathers must stand on the sidelines, guffawing occasionally at the broadest of jokes.