Journalists are the heroes in “The French Dispatch,” so expect film critics to be a little bit biased in their embrace of Wes Anderson’s latest. It flatters the field, after all, just not in the way that Pulitzer-centric mega-scoop sagas “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight” may have done before. Anderson is more of a miniaturist, albeit one whose vision grows more expansive — and more impressive — with each successive project.
Here, the Texas-to-Paris transplant sets out to honor The New Yorker and its ilk, re-creating the joy of losing oneself in a 12,000-word article (or three) on the big screen while relocating the entire affair to his adoptive home. Set in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé — a cross between Paris and frozen-in-time Angoulême (where most of the exteriors were shot) — the film offers an expat’s-eye view of France, packaged as a series of clips from the eponymous publication.
What does that mean exactly? Well, this is an anthology film, one that consists of “an obituary, a travel guide and three feature articles.” So while there’s no overarching narrative or overlap between segments, Anderson is quite clearly the author of all five — for there is no living filmmaker with a more recognizable visual signature, and every frame of “The French Dispatch” is unmistakably his. Thus, the unconventional project succeeds in delivering that very particular hodgepodge pleasure of reading a well-curated issue from cover to cover.
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Off the top, the obituary is that of erstwhile French Dispatch founder and publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). He was a man of many maxims (among them “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose” and “No crying”) who could spot and champion talent in unlikely form, even if it meant bailing out of jail someone he believed to be a nascent writer, like Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-esque dandy who recites every line of a wild-and-crazy kidnapping story by heart.
Today, journalists are expected to be moral, upstanding citizens with perfect grammar and even more impeccable ethics, but that couldn’t be less true of Howitzer’s crew. They consider “journalistic neutrality” to be a nonsense conceit, willfully injecting themselves into their own pieces. Frances McDormand plays the movie’s Mavis Gallant-like Lucinda Krementz, who reports on the student protests of May 1968 in the mostly black-and-white middle segment. She’s understandably intrigued by the young radical Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet), but rather than remain on the sidelines, she takes his virginity and improves his manifesto sur l’oreiller (or “on the pillow,” as the French so charmingly put it).
That’s as political as things get here, although relative to the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre — which typically falls somewhere between whimsical and twee — it’s a significant breakthrough to see the director engaging with sexuality and violence as aspects of real life. Yes, there’s still an ironic distance between such elements and the audience, but “The French Dispatch” feels less safe than Anderson’s earlier work, and that’s a good thing.
“I assure you it’s erotic,” culture hawk J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) insists in “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a profile presented as an upscale art lecture dedicated to modern-art bad boy Moses Rosenthaler (a bestial Benicio del Toro), a convicted killer who found his muse (prison guard Léa Seydoux) in lockdown. The way Rosenthaler gushes, it’s fair to imagine this rarefied intellectual may have been seduced by more than just her artistic genius — which is a very subversive way of parodying the late and ever-so-proper L’oeil historian Rosamond Bernier.
The movie’s packed with inside jokes for audiences hip to the arts and culture scene of 1950s and ’60s New York and Paris. Back then, a great many American creatives hopped the Atlantic, chasing the Lost Generation glory of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and found a city that embraced those ahead of the curve back home. Nationalism is now on the rise across Europe, but in Anderson’s France, the pen is still mightier than Le Pen. The director resists saying anything too controversial about French politics, then or now, laughing off value judgments (it’s a punchline that talk-of-the-town Rosenthaler is a literal enfant terrible) and personal causes (Zeffirelli fights for free access to the women’s dormitory, rather than taking a stand against imperialism).
Anderson’s characters may be caricatures of serious writers, and yet, the movie’s tone is more consistent with The New Yorker’s comedic contributors: James Thurber’s cartoons, Woody Allen’s absurdity, Steve Martin’s satirical treatment of artists, critics and other cultural charlatans. Where “The Grand Budapest Hotel” served as an homage to a single writer, Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, “The French Dispatch” is Anderson’s arms-wide-open tribute to a generation of complicated geniuses, so the winks come as dense and dizzying as guilty-pleasure movie references do in a Quentin Tarantino picture.
It can be fun to play detective when presented with such a collage, but “The French Dispatch” is a first-class pastiche, and as such, all those influences have been recombined into something new and original. That’s good news for those who aren’t longtime readers of The New Yorker, since this squirrelly collection of shorts is meant to stand on its own. In the past, the director has been accused of making overly contrived dollhouse movies, and while he repeats many of his favorite tricks — toying with aspect ratios, centering characters in symmetric compositions, revealing a large building in intricate cross-section — this time it feels as if there’s a full world teeming beyond the carefully controlled edges of the frame.
From the beginning, we’re told that The French Dispatch is a satellite publication “of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun” (it says as much in teeny-tiny type below the title), which serves as a reminder that this Francophilic love fest springs from a more or less Midwestern mindset. Anderson knows that when you’ve never been to Paris, even the prostitutes and pickpockets seem sophisticated, and that everything from a beret to a baguette can seem funny — to say nothing of a tongue-twister like “grognons” or a slightly stilted accent. When characters do speak French, the subtitles are so queerly styled and arranged, the movie seems to be daring you to read them.
Apart from Ernst Lubitsch or Jacques Tati, it’s hard to imagine another director who has put this level of effort into crafting a comedy, where every costume, prop and casting choice has been made with such a reverential sense of absurdity. If that sounds airless or exhausting, think again: Sure, it takes work to unpack, but the ensemble ensures that Anderson’s humorous creations feel human. At the top of the masthead — and indulgent godfather to his staff — Murray recalls not just editors Ross and Wallace Shawn of The New Yorker but also the great H.L. Mencken, who encouraged writers like John Fante, subsisting on pennies and orange peels, to find their voice.
Frivolous as this all may sound, Anderson is right to celebrate a generation who broadened our idea of what storytelling could be, shaping more than just journalism: They found poetry in the streets and heroes on the margins; they challenged the establishment and represented a nouvelle vague every bit as influential as the one sweeping cinema around the same time. Today, chasing web traffic and popular trends, the field has arguably evolved in the wrong direction, which more than justifies such a toast to those ink-stained wretches who once followed their instincts.