The French Dispatch is the latest Wes Anderson film to be utterly encumbered by the director’s propeller-beanie twee and flattened storytelling chops.
For better or for worse, there are few working American auteurs whose visual stamps are as broadly and immediately recognizable as Wes Anderson. Not even shifting mediums from live-action to stop motion could disguise his trademarks: a meticulous and colorful mise-en-scene captured in symmetrical compositions and as overpopulated by curios as it is by his familiar crew of players who glide into his dollhouse interiors to deliver the type of deadpan, just-subtle-enough to pull a knowing smirk. Likely, it’s this consistency of style — the rougher edges of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums have long been sanded down — that makes it seem like even when Anderson tries something new, like the high-concept short-story anthology of The French Dispatch, it arrives already stale, an effect only exacerbated by sitting under the heat-lamp of a year’s long pandemic-related delay. The “been there done that” quality seeping out from the film’s star-packed trailer is at once unfortunate, as this has one of the most enticing elevator pitches for an Anderson work in some time, and sadly somewhat appropriate given how its vibrant premise gets buried under the lumbering weight of the director’s aesthetics.
The setup is simple, regardless of how complex things get later on, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun‘ is a magazine (a fictional one modeled on The New Yorker) made up of American expats headquartered in a fictional town of post-war France. Its final issue, following the death of founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), forms the blueprint of the film which dutifully pulls us along the periodical’s pages covering an array of cultural subjects from city life to art and politics to food. Anderson, a collector and admirer of The New Yorker since adolescence, has not just created a tonal homage to the institution, but a sophisticated intertwining of his favorite editors, authors, and their iconic writing. Flipping through An Editor’s Burial, a compendium of articles released alongside the film, reveals Anderson’s specific inspirations, featuring pieces by historic New Yorker writers including Luc Sante, Lillian Ross, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, and A.J. Liebling — piecemeal evidence of whom can be found composited together by Anderson into the four central chapters and intermittent asides that make up The French Dispatch.
The director’s aforementioned trademark style is present from the get-go, and much like The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are at once met with a gorgeous flurry of pastel-shaded rooms captured on 35mm, framed in Academy ratio, ready to expand into anamorphic wide for cheeky split-screens or a brief moment of spectacle. Back too is the sharp pacing, pushing us from one richly edited set-piece to the next, like the panels in a comic book, an idea crystallized by the animated sequence of the last chapter directly inspired by French comics of the time. Fresh this go-around, is extensive use of black-and-white (found only sparingly in Budapest) for sections of the story sequences, creating magnificent setups for rooms to erupt in color at (quite literally) the flick of a switch. But this rich visual exuberance lays on the film like an intricate layer of frosting coating thick slabs of bland vanilla sponge. What’s so unfortunate about The French Dispatch is how the multitude of distinct authorial styles, themes, subjects, and settings at its source yield and flatten under the weight of Anderson’s propeller-beanie twee, politic, and wit. Lost in the process is the genuine spirit of The New Yorker, at once easy to parody or pastiche, yet hard to nail without versatility and depth beyond the boundaries of Anderson’s toy workshop.
How could a film whose sense of humor is defined by setting the course of events in “Ennui-sur-Blasé” hope to evoke James Baldwin’s indignity at the laughter of his captors in a Parisian jail? “The laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real,” Baldwin writes in “Equal in Paris,” an essay Anderson features in An Editor’s Burial and which is hinted at in the film, but one whose central thrust is nowhere to be found. Instead, we are introduced to Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a character composite of Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, who goes on an adventure while dining with a dignified and kind police captain. The brief nod to Baldwin’s imprisonment forms the emotional peak of the film, depicting saintly white savior Howitzer bailing Wright out of jail and giving him a job. An established acquaintance had eventually come to Baldwin’s rescue as well, but the incident, far from being a wellspring of hope in human empathy (as Anderson depicts in his film), had instead solidified for Baldwin that the cruel inequities he’d fled from in New York existed in just as vivid fashion in Paris, thus lending his essay its barbed title.
Let’s take for granted that the whimsical tone and mood of The French Dispatch isn’t cut out to accommodate the righteous passion of Baldwin’s piece — albeit Wright is outfitted with his fashion, speech mannerisms, and allusions to his queerness — but once the process of gutting and assimilating the source material of any of these stories is complete, the individual narratives feel like lifeless, half-baked vehicles for Anderson’s jokes and japes until they have to shuffle off to make room for the next setup. This may work fine for the first two segments, a snappy bicycle tour of the town and a woefully cliche albeit amusing sendup of modern art, but the film hits a real speed bump in the third, wherein Anderson tackles, with similar whimsy and nonchalance, the heft of May 1968 in Paris (notable for the violent suppression of student protests by riot police which led to sympathy strikes blossoming to include millions of workers and pushing the country to the brink of revolution). One could only imagine the response to Anderson’s glib framing (urging students to “go make love instead”) of police brutality had the film followed suit on its mid-summer release in the thick of the George Floyd protests, similarly marked by tear gas, bullets, and batons. Once again, the source material (here the bemused staccato and dark wit of Mavis Gallant’s on-the-ground journals) is betrayed by Anderson’s chintzy shtick, Timothee Chalamet grasping for a towel from the bathtub, him and Frances McDormand bolting to a cartoonish standstill in gas masks as a punchline, riot police and protestors playing a goofy game of chess across the barricades.
At my screening, pockets of laughter occasionally erupted through the audience, proof that Anderson’s comedic rhythms and bits, flimsy as they may be, can still work their magic on some. Those who can disregard the clumsy politics and disappointing follow-through on a great premise will probably find The French Dispatch an amiable trifle, albeit quickly forgettable and lacking the presence of many of his works. Thinking through Anderson’s filmography brings me back to the Baldwin quote from earlier, more so than the encumbered visual style or dry humor, the director’s early works at least bearing some roots in “the pain of living,” an idea clearest in how his greatest achievement, The Royal Tenenbaums, is remembered less so for the sophisticated cinematic grammar than its pervasive portrait of loneliness, familial tragedy, and doomed love. In the thick Rolodex of Wes Anderson characters over the last twenty years, few exist as vividly in memory as Richie and Margot Tenenbaum, and if his films continue down this current trajectory, we have little hope of seeing any like them again.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.