There’s a craftiness to all Wes Anderson movies, in the sense that his reality is invented, constructed, handmade. No wonder it dwells in worlds of whimsy, with fanciful names (The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun being a perfectly valid example) and eye-grabbing symmetrical compositions. There’s a sleight of hand involved in craftiness, of course. But also a love of the made thing.
The French Dispatch is the latest invention by Anderson, and it’s ostensibly a “love letter to journalists.” This is heartening to journalists, who still labor in the vineyards of bringing back some version of the truth, whether it’s Jake Tapper or Maria Ressa, in a time when the very idea of truth is imperiled.
Never mind. We have the beauty of the written word, and Anderson is as much in love with words as he is with symmetrical compositions.
The opening frame is like the opening page of a book: “The following film consists of: an OBITUARY, a BRIEF TRAVEL-GUIDE, and THREE FEATURE ARTICLES all from The French Dispatch (an American magazine published in Ennui, France).” In it, characters occupy the well-adjusted frames as though they’re paper cutouts marching through pages of The New Yorker, reciting their lines with the deadpan pauses and layers of irony that Anderson loves.
Here is a magazine come to life. Not only the magazine’s font is meant to conjure up The New Yorker, but also its narrators, amalgamations of writers like Joseph Mitchell, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin. (Anderson is one of the few directors you might need to keep Wikipedia open while watching, or reviewing. You could spend days catching up with his sources.)
Indeed, you could fall down rabbit holes of links and back stories in charting Wes Anderson’s design obsessions.
For The Grand Budapest Hotel, he reportedly shot entire chunks of the movie in animation on miniature sets before going through it all with an actual cast. To scout his incredible European locales for The French Dispatch — those decrepit buildings that signify a century of ennui — Anderson’s crew reportedly resorted to Google Earth. Here is a director for whom the metaverse had to race to catch up, to even become invented.
And of course Anderson is a magnet for A-list actors, not just for his well-known stable of regulars (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban), but for the likes of Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Léa Seydoux. In a way, he has taken on the icon muse director duties once filled by the now-problematic Woody Allen; the talent now just flocks over to Wes.
There is something wonderfully whimsical in the idea of a Europe-based monthly field report that is meant to serve the reading needs of faraway Kansas residents. Perhaps the idea that they will never see those beautiful cities of cobblestones and lights makes reading about them in print so precious.
The expat yearning is a strong one. The American Midwest has long been the breeding ground for those seeking more international vistas, like New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who serves as inspiration for French Dispatch editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). We see Howitzer in action for brief glimpses, instructing his writers, going over the monthly expenses, and it’s the nuts and bolts of editing life that feels real.
While The Grand Budapest Hotel rested on an underlying acknowledgment of European war and genocide and the bad things of history and life, The French Dispatch has no such subtext. It instead has an overlaid sense of world-weariness, of time passing and passing (even the fictional town name, Ennui-sur-Blasé, means “Boredom upon Apathy”), and an overarching architectural (visual) style that is delightful eye candy — it’s something you can just gaze upon with wonder — and it helps get us through a trio of shaggy dog stories.
Owen Wilson first takes us on a very short (300-word) bike tour through the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, a place that split screens reveal has changed little over the centuries (there’s still a Pickpocket’s Lane, just with different fashion and different lowlifes).
After this hors d’oeuvre, the main stories focus on Abstract Expressionist painter Moses Rosenthaler (Del Toro), incarcerated for murder, and his muse, prison guard Simone (Seydoux), as told through the lens of art lecturer J.K.L. Berenson (Swinton); the second feature is set during the 1968 student riots, with McDormand reporting on a young self-styled revolutionary, Zeffirelli (Chalamet), who first protests for access to the girl’s dormitory, then is caught up in the “Chessboard Revolution,” which plays out literally over chessboards, followed by tear gas and rubber bullets. Student protest, Anderson seems to suggest, is a mere passing fad of fashion amidst the churning ocean of time.
The final tale turns into something Anderson has always loved — a caper — as food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) tours the elaborate kitchens of the Ennui police station, where chef Lt. Nescaffier devises a specialized menu for cops. Naturally, there’s a crime (kidnapping), and a shootout involving Ed Norton, and what could be tragedy turns into comical farce laced with a touch of melancholia.
And all this is surely enough to ever want or expect from Wes Anderson, who’s never bothered to mask his love of artifice in his movies. “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” is Howitzer’s steadfast advice to his writers. Do not fault the craftsman for making beautiful things. That is his calling card, printed up in his cherished Futura font for as long as he cares to turn his craft to making more.