Director: Wes Anderson Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Park… Running Time: 103 minutes
Wes Anderson, 52 years old, American filmmaker, accused auteur, verified eclectic, has a long-standing and well-founded reputation for cinematic confection, and audience Marmite.
Anderson can be seen as a fuss-budget, alienatingly concerned with aesthetics above all, his focus on style a substance abuse. It says a lot that each new release of his is often met with the description, ‘the most Wes Andersony Wes Anderson movie’. That’s true of his latest film The French Dispatch on the surface but on a deeper more meaningful level too. It’s his most comprehensive collection yet of his usual players, his most carefully arranged playset, but also among his most melancholic, and artistically expressive. Above and beyond a tribute to writers and artists, of the New Yorker magazine specifically and at large generally, The French Dispatch gradually reveals itself as a very personal expression of the man’s own artistic outlook and impulses, a self-profile buried in the pages of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun’s mag.
The Dispatch is a supplement of the fictional Kansas newspaper, overseen with a steely glare but a loose hand by founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, more Anderson’s on-screen daddy than ever). The film is structured as the final issue, released on the occasion of Hoju’s passing. It’s a visual representation of the articles of this final edition; an introduction to the too-cute town of Ennui-sur-Blasé by cycling travelogger Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), a report on ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ by art critic JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton), a political investigation on youth protesters by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and a food column-cum-crime report by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), all bookended with a prologue and epilogue on the insular world of the paper’s office. It’s an anthology of articles. Like Zzzap.
The film is even more offbeat in presentation than The Grand Budapest Hotel, hopping in and out of colour, aspect ratios and timelines. Sazerac addresses his article directly to us in median res, quickly catching us up to speed with the vibe of Ennui (hint: there’s some ennui). Berensen addresses an art symposium with her story of tortured and incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) and his beloved muse, the prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), working under the passive aggressive patronage of Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). Krementz reports on the developing manifesto of student revolutionaries led by Zeffirelli B (Timmy C) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), blurring the lines of journalistic neutrality in the process. And Wright, on a TV talk show, looks back and perfectly recites his article recounting his dinner with the Ennui police commissioner (Mathieu Almaric), prepared by legendary police chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park), almost immediately interrupted by the kidnapping of the commissioner’s young son by a gang of ne’er’do’wells including Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan and more. As the segments progress, both the pathos and patter increase, the stories becoming ever more fanciful but further revealing about love, loneliness and creative expression.
For a director so often accused of being set in his ways, Anderson continues to push himself further with each film, its the same style but that style is always deeper in development, never content to rest on its laurels. A lively animated chase sequence – half Bob Mankoff, half Tintin – is such a no-brainer for the director it suddenly hits you as wild that he’s never done it before, here it’s a welcome delight. The use of black and white, and the contrast whenever colour comes in, heralding the future, the transcendent, the wonderful, is boldface with a camera lens. It’s a film packed with fun touches and flourishes, the trademark wry humour and laissez-faire air the clearer to highlight and contrast the sadness. Death, brutality and ignorance are at the fringes of these carefully assembled scenes, creeping ever closer into the frame. Wright’s section, perhaps with the ringer of the great James Baldwin hanging over it, holds something close to a thesis statement for Anderson, reflecting on a stranger, reaching nostalgically for a security, dignity and clarity that he can never reach and may never have been there anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s there in the reach. It’s too clever by half and too sad by at least a third, but somehow the equation balances out into something improbable, an emotionally resonant romp.
The French Dispatch is droll and delicate, but the snappy pacing and breezy air allow its ambition plenty of room to breath and it never feels overstuffed despite the massive cast and many segments. There’s something warm and generous about how this collab comes across; from its dedications to James Baldwin, Lillia Ross and more, its parade of Anderson’s regulars and its consistently compassionate tone, it may be Anderson at both his most playful and contemplative. Experimental and intricate, it’s as strong a case as you can make for the director for or against; his French Fancy, his vibrant comic triptych, his Fin City.