Wes Anderson is an artist whom you either take or leave in his entirety. More than any other filmmaker who comes to mind, the content of his movies is the style—his distinct, immediately recognizable, easy to parody, fussy, twee, manicured, zany, wistful, and marrionettish style—and that style will either be to your taste or not. When I first saw one of his movies (The Life Aquatic, back in high school) I decided, for good or ill, that I would take him. But all this makes it feel rather pointless to write a review. Yet for a movie such as The French Dispatch, one with such obvious literary preoccupations and aspirations, a review is called for.
We are, at once, thrown into the imaginary French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (a name that is either clever or very, very silly—you decide), where Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the founding editor of the titular expatriate journal, has just expired. This is to be the final and ultimate edition of this magazine, whose dissolution is announced along with the obituary of the aforementioned editor (played by a characteristically tired-looking Bill Murray). The movie then goes through the remaining pages: a short description of the city by Herbsaint Sazarac (Owen Wilson), an account of a brilliant and insane artist by J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), a piece on the student uprisings by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and a food-review-turned-police-chase by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).
Let us explore these pages. First the obituary. Strangely, although Murray’s character is drawn from the famously neurotic Harold Ross, and although Murray is always wonderful, the character is not given enough room to really breathe in the movie. This is an artifact of Anderson’s conceit of making a movie-magazine, though it is an unfortunate one, as Howitzer is ideally positioned to be the heart of the film. His demise and the magazine’s dissolution thus do not emotionally register; perhaps Anderson took Howitzer’s motto (“No Crying”) a little bit too seriously. The movie bursts into life with Wilson’s tour of the city—a charming, lovely, tour-de-force of Anderson’s aesthetic—which I wish had been longer.
But the real meat of the film are the three long nonfiction pieces—“A Concrete Masterpiece,” “Revisions to a Manifesto,” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Each one is only about half an hour long, though Anderson manages to pack quite a lot into this time.
We first meet Tilda Swinton, who is giving us a lecture on the great, avant-garde artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Rosenthaler’s abstract artwork, made using prison materials, soon attracts the pecuniary interest of one Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a character inspired by art dealer Lord Duveen. One might think that Anderson would use this as an opportunity for a portrait of his own artistic process, but the insane and tortured Rosenthaler—hopelessly in thrall to his muse and guard (Leá Seydoux)—bears little resemblance to the careful and meticulous director. Here, we see quite clearly how Anderson takes a story that could have been heavy and full of melodrama in other hands (insanity, prison, artistic creation) and turns it into a light and frivolous romp.
Next we enter the tumultuous world of a student uprising, based on the events of 1968, which we see through the dispassionate eyes of McDormand’s reporter. This story, it occurs to me, is the first time that I have been actively disappointed in Anderson’s work. Anderson based this story on Mavis Gallant’s diary of the event, published in The New Yorker. It is a wonderful document—riveting, incisive, and vivid. Yet somehow, none of these qualities make it into the movie version. The story instead concerns itself with a feeble love story between Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), with McDormand as the third corner of a vaguely triangular love-shape. The protests, meanwhile, are transformed from a thrilling historical event into just another whimsical backdrop. And all the great acting in the world (and the acting is quite fine) cannot breathe life into an aimless script.
Thankfully, the quality improves markedly with the next installment. Jeffrey Wright does a marvelous job bringing his character—an obvious James Baldwin impersonation, though with his passion for social justice replaced with a passion for eating—to life. The story is pure Anderson: start with an absurd premise (Wright is writing a review of the great master of “police cooking,” Lt. Nescaffier—a name silly under every circumstance), then transform it into an absurd story (a kidnapping-caper that eventually hinges on one’s liking for radishes) using absurd means (among other things, there is a circus acrobat). I have very little to say except for bravo all round.
So much for the film’s résumé. In order to round out this review, I must also dwell upon the deeper themes—the ideas, the undercurrents, the message—if I am to call myself a true critic. But here I draw a blank. Anderson has a habit of including a few touching or profound scenes in his films (I am thinking specifically of the final section of the final story), which can seem (in this case, quite literally) roughly shoved into an otherwise farcical story. One never knows how to take these apparently genuine moments of pathos, since so much of his aesthetic is devoted to showing how the potentially serious is constantly rendered ridiculous through the intrusion of trivialities. At his best, Anderson succeeds in showing how poignant feeling can eke out an existence within our very unromantic world, but at his worst one wonders if he values anything beyond prettiness and chuckles.
The standard line on this movie is that it is a “love letter to journalism.” Though I can see why this is said, it strikes me as highly inaccurate. The journalists in this film are not paragons of objectivity, or remarkable for their investigative skills, or even interested in telling truth to power. If this film is a love letter to anything, it is to story-telling—to unearthing captivating characters in unusual situations, and setting it out with flair and panache. His own artistic ideal is thus far closer to Tilda Swinton’s bubbly art journalist than to Benicio del Toro’s tortured painter. He will not rip open his heart, or yours, or solve the riddles of our destiny, or vivisect the viscera of the human soul. But he will give you a thoroughly delightful two hours.