With The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson Overindulges on Whimsy—But His Heart Is in the Right Place
Wes Anderson is one of the most passionate filmmakers. That’s both a thing to admire about him and a source of deep exasperation. As we barrel so cluelessly and ruthlessly through the present and into the future, it’s true that the past needs fans, people who remember a time when turning the pages of a magazine didn’t entail tapping or swiping, when telephones consisted of two solid parts connected by a coily thing, when bicycling in France meant putting on a stripy shirt and a beret, as if you were interpreting a cartoon figure painted on a tin tray. Anderson’s movies are a repository for the old ways and methods of yesterday. He’s the mad little watchmaker of filmmaking.
Yet it’s possible to love the past and still be aggravated by Anderson’s particular brand of tweed-and-fondant nostalgia, and now he’s back with yet another test of endurance. French DispatchIt consists of three stories that are combined into one. They all come from the fictional magazine that gave the movie its name. New Yorker–like publication based in the phony-baloney French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, which thrived until the last third of the 20th century. Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the editor of this legendary periodical, is velvet curmudgeon and velvet custodian. He supervises a busy staff of fact-checkers copy editors, illustrators, note-takers as well as long-time writers like Herbsaint Sazerac, an Owen Wilson travel journalist, and J.K.L. as art scholar. Berensen (Tilda Swainton), Lucinda Krementz, sensible-woolens journalist (Frances McDormand), as well as Roebuck Wright, a food writer who writes everything but food (Jeffrey Wright).
If that already sounds like a rich roster of actors for one movie, just wait—there are more. This triptych’s first story follows Moses Rosenthaler, an imprisoned painter. He deals with Julien Cadazio, an art dealer (Adrien Broody), in his dealings. The second details the antics and arguments of a group of French student revolutionaries led by the boyishly charismatic swain Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). The third is a shaggy-dog tale of food and intrigue—though not necessarily in that order—that involves an underworld accountant (Willem Dafoe), a showgirl kidnapper (Saoirse Ronan) and a commissaireIn search of his son, (Mathieu amalric).
Anderson manages to keep the intricate mechanics of every story flowing, but each tale can get a little tedious. French DispatchAndersonia is a complex movie machine with millions of tiny components moving together. It can be overwhelming depending on what your tolerance level. There’s a point, too, at which production design (here, courtesy of frequent Anderson collaborator Adam Stockhausen) becomes the enemy of a movie’s energy, like wallpaper fighting its way into the center of a room. And how many clever dollhouse cutaways and whimsical digressions can one movie—even one cradling three disparate stories—support? You might feel ready to leave tinytown by the end.
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And yet—with Anderson there’s always an “and yet.” Although most of the performers get lost in the swirl, a few stand out: Wright’s character is based partly on James Baldwin, and it’s easy to be swept along by his diction alone, an ever cresting wave of buttery vowels and sentences that swoop like migrating swallows. Anderson has called this movie “a love letter to journalists,” and in addition to Baldwin, he makes numerous references to some very real people. Swinton’s character is based on Rosamond Bernier, a society maven and journalist who became famous in the 1970s for giving art-history presentations while dressed in dazzling dinner gowns. Anderson has a similar sense of the occasion she had, so it is no surprise that Anderson does as well. His obsessions may drive you mad, but his heart—worn proudly on his corduroy sleeve—is at least in the right place.