***1/2 out of ****
(for graphic nudity, some sexual references, and language)
Released: October 22, 2021 limited; expands October 29 and November 5
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray
Coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, the consensus on Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (his 10th feature film, and first anthology) was that it was the most Wes Anderson movie ever. That’s either a promise or a threat, depending on who you are.
As a devotee of Anderson’s meticulous twee, it was the former for me — and The French Dispatch makes good on that promise in glorious fashion. (It also has a Euro-ease with nudity, so don’t take the kids expecting Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
An affectionate ode to literary journalism (and The New Yorker, most especially), The French Dispatch frames its anthology within the final publication of the titular (and fictional) magazine, published in the mid-20th Century. While the net effect is a collection of short films, they’re just as much literary and theatrical as they are cinematic. One could easily describe these as One Act Plays and, in spirit, they’d be just as accurate.
The dispatch exists to bring Europe to central Kansas, which is where publisher and editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) is from. While the character is based on New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross, one can’t help but think there’s an autobiographical DNA to Howitzer’s Kansas root, given how Anderson is a Texas native who now lives in France (following a long stint in New York City) and makes movies that revel in a European sensibility. Even so, the Texan in Wes allows his work to poke fun at the very artistic pretense his movies are often accused of having (and even do, to a degree, by design). Like Murray’s Howitzer, Anderson is a Parisian at heart but with a Midwestern humility.
That self-deprecation is apparent right off the bat with the name that Anderson concocted for the town where The French Dispatch is published: Ennui. Yes, the French word for “melancholy” that’s often employed when describing Anderson’s films. As a kicker, the town’s full name is actually Ennui-de-Blasé, which is to say Despairing yet Indifferent, a one-two punch of self-mockery about artistic elites who express existential angst on one hand yet, on the other, a haughty intellectualism too disaffected to even care.
Anderson is not blasé, of course, but he’s aware that some critics brand his fetishistic craft as being lavish yet cold, and the town’s name is a fun wink at that.
Of the four stories, the first — “The Cycling Reporter” — is more-or-less a breezy palate setter, as Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac gives a guided tour of Ennui. Wes uses this to build the world we’re entering into, not just narratively but aesthetically. That palette is dense, even by Wes’s standards, so much so that, for me, as a reviewer who takes notes during screenings, I was legitimately leery of pausing to jot down even a quick note for fear of what I’d miss.
This “concern” remained constant through the three main stories that followed: the first (starring Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, and Tilda Swinton as the satirically-inspired high-culture snob who tells the story) being one that clashes an artist’s impractical integrity and temperament with an aristocrat’s hubris (punctuated by a climactic set piece of physical screwball comedy), the second (with Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, and French-Algerian starlet Lyna Khoudri) that takes aim at the Socialist/Marxist ideals of youth, ones that champion “the people” yet inevitably lead to a totalitarian impulse (and how childish that actually is), and a third (starring Jeffrey Wright as both storyteller and star) that is the film’s most poignant, a comic crime caper of the slapstick kind that Anderson loves to concoct but with an undercurrent of, yes, ennui that Wright portrays so movingly (and deserving of awards recognition for an actor long-past due for some).
For all the farcical irony, there’s also a clear affection for these characters, their ideals, and what they’re feeling. Anderson takes aim at elites (artistic, cultural, political, and otherwise) but also has a genuine sympathy for them, elevating what would be lampoonery in other hands to loving folk tales about flawed-but-kindred spirits.
Every frame bursts at the seams, especially considering that Wes’s frame of choice here follows the old square Academy ratio 1:33:1. Despite literally boxing his film in, however, Anderson’s ornate visuals aren’t compromised. Instead of feeling cramped with the wide screen cut off, Anderson utilizes depth. These “deeper” sets allow Wes to maintain his obsession with artistic minutia but from a stronger point of depth-perception. Instead of filling space left-to-right, it’s now front-to-back. Not only is it gorgeous, but that depth creates a subconscious illusion of worlds you could actually walk into and around in, rather than “just” being the whimsically baroque dioramas that Anderson is so famous for.
And for a film shot mostly in black-and-white (as a nod to the print medium it essentially eulogizes, along with the rigorous disciplines that now seem antiquated in our partisan era), Anderson applies splashes of vibrant color. They occur briefly, but they’re intentionally used to break the fourth wall at key moments, crossing the threshold between story and reality.
More bluntly, if black-and-white represents the stories being told (with their own aspect of narrative license), the moments of color are peaks into the actual reality of these stories, free of a reporter’s bias or angle. Black-and-white is the reportage, but color reveals a candid, intimate truth.
Similarly but on the opposite side of the spectrum, the use of animation is more than a gimmick and even goes beyond the obvious homage to New Yorker style cartoons. Here, it’s the reportage at its most fantastical, enhancing the biggest flourishes of narrative license used to capture a reader’s imagination.
Then, through Murray’s Howitzer and his loyal staff of writers, we see Anderson’s admiration for a rigorous yet empowering form of journalism, one in which Howizter challenges his writers to make their stories better yet also gives them free rein because, ultimately, it’s their voices he wants to publish and share.
Once you get past all the dry hijinks and obsessive attention to symmetrical detail (which are worthy artistic endeavors in their own right), Anderson’s The French Dispatch is an artful paean to a form of journalism that wasn’t biased or activist, but humanist.