The French Dispatch Review
Wes Anderson claimed in a 2019 interview with Charente Libre that his new film, “The French Dispatch,” was “not easy to describe.” He’s right; it isn’t, and any attempt to explain it would only serve to make it sound even more nonsensical. It’s like dismantling a clock to discover how it works and then realizing you have no idea what time it is. A clock is a fitting metaphor for Anderson’s style, which can be found in all of his films but is particularly prominent here. “The French Dispatch,” which is made out of a dizzying array of whirring intersecting teeny tiny components, ticks forward mercilessly, never pausing to breathe, scarcely pausing for reflection.
“The French Dispatch” lacks some of the most appealing elements of his earlier films, such as “Rushmore’s” prep school follies, “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Darjeeling Limited’s” personal family dynamic, and “Moonrise Kingdom’s” focus on children. “The French Dispatch,” on the other hand, keeps the spectator at a distance and is a stronger film as a result. It’s amazing to watch Anderson pursue his fixation to its logical conclusion (it’s difficult to say how much further he could go). The film may be difficult to describe, but it is a lot of fun to see. It’s a fast-paced, crazy film about a world that never changes.
The New Yorker, specifically The New Yorker during the time of finicky founder/editor Harold Ross, and his daunting roster of writers—James Thurber, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Rosamond Bernier, James Baldwin—were all given enormous leeway in terms of subject matter and process, but edited to within an inch of their lives to align their prose with the aggressive New Yorker house style.
Although it began in Liberty, Kansas, where editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) was born and reared, the fictionalized New Yorker is called The French Dispatch, and it is published out of a little French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. (In one of the numerous “A-ha” moments of knowledge strewn throughout, the magazine was once known as Picnic.) William Inge was born in Independence, Kansas, and is best known for his 1953 play Picnic. Have you heard of the words “liberty” and “independence”? None of this signifies anything, but it’s entertaining if you notice it.) Howitzer is accompanied by a dedicated team of employees who are tasked with monitoring a group of eccentric writers who are all hard at work creating items for the upcoming issue.
“The French Dispatch” does not focus on the lives of these characters, but rather on their job, and the film’s structure is that of a magazine issue, where you practically step into the pages and “read” three different tales. But first, there’s the Jacques Tati-style opening sequence, which is clearly a spoof on The New Yorker mainstay “The Talk of the Town,” with Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson, dressed dapperly in a black beret and turtleneck) pedaling through Ennui-sur-Blasé, showing us the sights (and speaking directly to the camera, causing some unfortunate collisions).
The inaugural issue of the magazine features Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a brilliant artist serving a life sentence for manslaughter who is in love with Simone (Léa Seydoux), his muse, promoter, and prison guard. Julian Cadazio, Moses’ representative in the high-falutin’ art world, is played by Adrien Brody, who wheel and deals to get Moses’ work out there. The second story is a Godardian pastiche of the 1968 student protests in Paris, starring Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a moody revolutionary (is there any other kind? ), and Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, a French Dispatch writer whose objectivity is compromised when she inserts herself into the story. (This part is clearly influenced by Mavis Gallant’s 1968 New Yorker article “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook,” which covered the protests.) The last chapter depicts writer Roebuck Wright’s (Jeffrey Wright) attempt to profile a legendary chef named Nescaffier (Steve Park), who works his magic in the police department kitchen. Roebuck Wright is a mashup of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling (with a bit M.F.K. Fisher thrown in). Each narrative is told in its own unique style, with Anderson employing animation, graphics, still lifes, visual puns, and humor, all tied together by Alexandre Desplat’s score and Anderson’s unwavering sense of purpose.
Wes Anderson is one of the few filmmakers with a particular style. (There’s an entire book called Accidentally Wes Anderson, which is made up of images of buildings and landscapes that seem like Anderson shots taken all around the world.) He is obsessed with two things: stuff and memories. In Anderson’s tiny diorama universe, mundane everyday objects take on new meanings. He sees things through the eyes of artist Joseph Cornell. Cornell was an obsessive collector of “junk” (marbles, ancient maps, tiny glass jars), garbage that when placed in his now-famous boxes transformed into magical talismans. Cornell’s fetishism shines through in his art, making everything a little unsettling in the most beautiful way possible.
There’s a thin line between fixation and fetishism, but in art, it doesn’t matter so much. Anderson’s artifacts shine with his meticulous attention to detail: he genuinely cares about each and every one of them. I’m reminded of a passage from Dorian Gray’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Only shallow people don’t judge based on appearances. The visible, not the invisible, is the ultimate mystery of the world.” Anderson sees the hidden meaning in the observable world.
Anderson’s fixation with goods is linked to another passion he has: nostalgia. Nostalgia is universal, but it may also be difficult to understand. What one individual wished for in the past may now be a nightmare for another (and vice versa). Nostalgia is expressed as a golden light in a hackneyed film (assumed to be universal). That isn’t the case with Anderson’s nostalgia. His is a really specific case. There’s a reason why some individuals are turned off by his work. That’s because you’re in the company of a true fanatic. If you don’t want to live within J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, for example, you won’t be able to readily enter Anderson’s dreamworld.
“The French Dispatch” is in the same boat. What’s most intriguing about this, though, is Anderson’s nostalgia for things that happened before he was born. He pines for imaginary places, goods that have become outdated, and rhythms from a bygone era that he has never known. This isn’t to imply that his nostalgia isn’t deeply felt. Yes, it is. “She had a nostalgia for a life she had never experienced,” says Nancy Lemann in her bizarre novel The Fiery Pantheon.
This is more about what “The French Dispatch” made me think about than what it is about. It’s odd that a film so busy, brilliant, and visually consistent offers so much room for free association, but it does. That’s quite endearing.