Some filmmakers are like licorice: You either like them or you don’t, and members of both camps are firmly convinced of the rightness of their choice. No director now working makes films that more closely resemble that divisive root-based candy than Wes Anderson, with the result that a discussion of any one of his movies tends to turn into a referendum on his whole cinematic output.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, a “beguiling curio.” Whether that image makes you want to pick up the nearest tchotchke and hurl it against the wall or open a browser window to buy a ticket is a good test of whether this movie is for you. Either way, “curio” is le mot juste, not just for this movie but for all 10 the fastidious Texan-turned-Parisian has made to date. Wes Anderson pictures, even the less beguiling ones, are collectible items, meticulously crafted toys meant to be lined up and rearranged like the stop-motion miniatures he loves to put into his movies (sometimes even the live-action ones).
That may sound like the starting point for a critique or a dismissal, but the fact is, I’m a sometimes-reluctant collector. I would never miss a Wes Anderson release, and even though some of his most widely loved films (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) have left me cold, there are others (Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox) I’ve loved so long I all but know them by heart. But even the films of his that I’ve outright disliked (The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited) are packed with marvels of production and costume design, cleverly conceived sight gags, and extra-dry dialogue delivered in the trademark rat-a-tat style he prefers. I’ve written before, more than once, about how Anderson seems like an artist in dire need of enlarging his thematic scope and experimenting with his visual style. Just what his movies are trying to say, what they want the viewer to think and feel and remember, can be hard to discern under the matte perfection of their richly colored surfaces. But there’s no disputing that Anderson is an artist, and an inimitable one with a unique place in the current filmmaking landscape.
If Wes Anderson films are licorice, The French Dispatch is one of those Scandinavian salted varieties that appeals to hardcore fans alone. It contains all the director’s tics—the symmetrical compositions, the intricate cross-sectioned sets, the deadpan line delivery—boiled down to their bone-broth essence. Nearly every actor from the de facto stock company Anderson has been building over the years makes an appearance: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Ed Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe. Then again, essentially every broom-wielding extra in The French Dispatch is a movie star. Get ready for fleeting cameos from Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, and Christoph Waltz, as well as full-sized performances from many actors Anderson has never worked with before: Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright.
Not all these actors will cross paths in the course of what is essentially a three-act anthology film. But they all share a wondrous confection of a location, designed by frequent Anderson collaborator Adam Stockhausen: the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, a sleepy hamlet on the banks of the Blasé river. (Whether those place names make you smile or gag is another useful gauge of the likelihood you will enjoy The French Dispatch.) Some of the exteriors are filmed in the ancient French town of Angoulême, but many of the street scenes and all of the interior ones take place on constructed sets that cram items of visual interest into every nook and cranny of the frame. (The ramshackle office building that houses the New Yorker–esque magazine of the title—the high-toned Sunday foreign supplement to a small-town Kansas newspaper—directly references the tumbledown house of Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s 1958 comedy Mon Oncle.)
Appropriately enough, The French Dispatch is structured as a magazine issue, specifically the last-ever numéro of the publication named in the title. It kicks off with an obituary, narrated by the off-screen voice of Anjelica Huston, for the magazine’s founder and editor in chief, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray). As we learn in a joke-packed opening montage, Howitzer, a newspaper heir, left Liberty, Kansas, as a young man to start a publication dedicated to the highest form of what is now called “slow journalism.” Howitzer is an amalgam of New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, who were fiercely protective of their writers but also exacting in what they demanded from them. The Dispatch office, as seen through Anderson’s eyes, is an emotionally restrained place (“No Crying” reads a sign above the door of Howitzer’s office) that nonetheless provides a home away from home for the exiles and eccentrics whose words fill the magazine’s pages.
After the major figures on the magazine’s masthead have been introduced, we get a travel column narrated by the beatnik reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), who bikes through the town of Ennui as he shows us its sometimes seedy charms: the red-light district with its streetwalkers and pimps, the rats scurrying underground, and the pack of ruffian children who roam the streets terrorizing old ladies and, at times, the cycling journalist himself. After this sequence comes to an end with a silent comedy–worthy slapstick gag, we move into the main section of the film: three long magazine features, each presented as its own free-standing ministory.
In the first article, written and partly narrated by Tilda Swinton’s fabulously costumed art critic character, a painter serving prison time for murder (Benicio del Toro) carries on a romance with the prison guard (Léa Seydoux) who poses for his nude portraits, while an art dealer (Adrien Brody) tries to get the brilliant but disturbed artist released in order to further his career. In the second, a reporter covering the May 1968 student strikes in Paris (Frances McDormand) carries on a December-May romance with one of the movement’s firebrand leaders (Timothée Chalamet). And in the third, a food writer (Jeffrey Wright) gets mixed up in the kidnapping of the young son of a police chief (Mathieu Amalric) while profiling a legendary chef (Stephen Park) for the magazine.
If you’ve brushed up on your New Yorker lore, you may recognize elements of the publication’s history in these narrative setups. Mavis Gallant covered the May ’68 student uprising in a series of first-person dispatches from the barricades, while James Baldwin, like Wright’s ascot-sporting scribe, was a gay Black writer who found a sense of belonging for the first time as a Parisian expatriate.
All three of the magazine features–turned–minifilms deal with potentially heavy subject matter: incarceration and mental illness; social unrest and compromised journalistic integrity; racism, homophobia, and organized crime. Yet Anderson’s touch remains light, sometimes maddeningly so. The French Dispatch generally hews to the “no crying” rule posted in Howitzer’s office, treating the complexities of the political and social world as fodder for gags and anecdotes. In a series of scenes where Wright’s Baldwin stand-in speaks to a TV talk-show host played by Liev Schreiber, we see the writer’s rueful melancholy but not his simmering anger. The tragic fate of one major character (insofar as any character in a cast this huge can be “major”) occasions one of the movie’s rare moments of raw emotion.
To the extent these three stories and the interstitial material that frames them share a thematic throughline, it has to do with the characters’ shared love for the power of the written word and the joy of collaborative creation. To use a literary term from the culture that the movie venerates, The French Dispatch is an example of mise en abyme, a self-reflexive work of art that contains its own reproduction in miniature. Just like the endlessly fussed-over magazine of the title, this endlessly fussed-over movie showcases a deliberately comic disproportion between effort expended and results achieved. Anderson tells these slight tales using every tool in his cinematic toolbox, sometimes several at once: split screens, shifts from color to black and white or from one aspect ratio to another, elaborate sets that slide past in the background to create the illusion of movement, an animated sequence that recalls the Tintin comic book series. This surplus of investment in beautiful details is a major source of the movie’s delight, but also the cause of what can feel like its airless claustrophobia. There were stretches, especially near the end of the third story, when my attention flagged, even though the film is a modest 107 minutes long. Still, as it came to an end with a credit sequence featuring marvelous mockups of imaginary French Dispatch cover designs through the years, a part of me wanted to sit through the whole thing again immediately, just to investigate every corner of every dollhouse-perfect frame.
In a last scene that buckles nicely with the opening montage about the magazine’s founding, the grieving staff of the French Dispatch gathers in Howitzer’s office (with the editor’s body still lying in state on his desk) to collaborate on writing their eccentric boss’s obit. Once again, what’s on film echoes what is happening behind the camera, as the director’s team of longtime co-creators (composer Alexandre Desplat, costume designer Milena Canonero, cinematographer Robert Yeoman) come together to craft his own oddball vision. The editorial advice Howitzer is best remembered for—“try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”—is a deceptively brilliant bit of art-making wisdom. The French Dispatch is a movie made with such deliberate, patient skill, and such brio, that its meandering structure and oddly low emotional temperature come off as intentional choices rather than errors of artistic judgment. Even if it’s not my favorite flavor of Wes Anderson licorice, nothing is there by accident.