Wes Anderson has been derided in recent years, perhaps understandably so: aside from being one of the most easily imitated filmmakers working, his picture book style has grown increasingly ornate and refined, seemingly alongside a commensurate decline in the anarchic spirit that once seemed to define his work. Post-Fantastic Fox, his movies looked more beautiful than ever, but they had become, arguably, a little forgettable.
Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Isle Of Dogs seemed a little lacking in terms of characters. Max Fischer and Royal Tenenbaum, arguably Anderson’s most memorable creations, were incorrigible shitheads. Their basic unpredictability added a necessary element of surprise to Anderson’s standard cuckoo clock production design. Which, absent the wild card character, can feel anodyne, more like a collection of tics than living characters.
In this context, it’d be easy to assume that Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch, is just a further extension of gorgeous-but-empty late-Anderson. It seems to have been marketed to the smug tote bag crowd that always patronize his work, using images of Owen Wilson wearing a beret and a special edition newspaper from the town of “Ennui, France.”
Now, if the phrase “Ennui, France” doesn’t make you groan a little on the inside, you’re probably not human. Yet experienced in their full context, these elements seem less symbolic of Anderson’s final descent into self-parody than a mark that he may finally know himself, things he was only groping blindly after in his younger days. The French Dispatch feels like a confident and even vulnerable exploration of Anderson’s own psyche; it’s his best film in at least a decade.
The French Dispatch is a kind of anthology, see, similar to Wes Anderson what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was to the Coen Brothers: a collection of sneaky-deep vignettes that both sharpen and further the themes that have been driving him for his entire career. Stylistically it seems to marry much of what Anderson learned in his forays into animation with his skills in live-action photography. It’s his most ornate and self-satisfied cuckoo clock yet, only this time it’s more than just a knick-knack. It’s a dollhouse-scale model of his own mind.
Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s breakout film, told the story of Max Fischer, a precocious private school scholarship teen seemingly out of step with his peers on account of his precociousness. Max falls in love with his much older widowed teacher and becomes friends and rivals with a 50-year-old man, played by Bill Murray. The Royal Tenenbaums too dealt with precocious youths, though at a later stage in life, and I think it’s fair to say that Wes Anderson is, to some degree, still that clever boy, searching for a gold star from a teacher after whom he secretly lusts, or an emotionally withholding father he can never seem to please.
This aspect of Anderson’s character is most evident in one of the French Dispatch‘s storylines, about a student radical named Zefferelli, played by Timothee Chalamet. Frances McDormand plays Lucinda Krementz, the journalist who arrives to cover the Zeffereli-led student protest. Arriving in the guise of a neutral observer, she ends up helping Zefferelli polish his manifesto and attempting to broker a truce between Zefferelli and his fractious female counterpart, Juliette, played by Lyna Khoudri. It’s obvious, to Krementz and to us, that the protests, and the youths’ painful earnestness, are mostly just a product of their desperate, repressed youthful horniness. Lucinda, as the wise stand-in for adult Anderson’s worldy superego, patiently advises Zeffereli and Juliette that they should maybe quit it with all the big words and just screw already.
That The French Dispatch is arguably Wes Anderson’s horniest film in years might be its saving grace. Horniness drives so much of its characters’ decision-making, and symbolically, maybe even some of the film’s style choices themselves, every self-satisfied turn of phrase just a way of pleading “please fuck me.”
This more transparent subtext has a way of humanizing all of Anderson’s stylistic peacocking, even as you can’t help but admire the feathers. The French Dispatch is something of a love letter to overwrought prose, and as Anderson once proved in the character of Eli Cash, few writers do satirically overwrought prose as well as Wes Anderson. I almost tore my pockets fumbling for a notebook in which to write down “her large, stupid eyes watched me pee,” Zefferelli’s art student-chic rendering of his post-coitus reverie with Juliette, or “a weakness in cartography: the curse of the homosexual,” Roebuck Wright’s inner monologue as he wanders the halls of a labyrinthine French police station. While Wes Anderson’s “comedy” has been trending towards “smiling in my head” for years, The French Dispatch produced in me multiple legitimate belly laughs.
The character of Roebuck Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright, is, like Lucinda Krementz, another reporter for the French Dispatch. The titular paper is the film’s framing device, a special weekend publication of the Kansas City Star, whose sections become separate vignettes introduced with title cards and narrated by the writers. There’s Chalamet’s disaffected college student (as told by McDormand’s Krementz); Benicio Del Toro as a prisoner turned artist painting abstract nudes of his beautiful guard, played by Lea Seydoux; Jeffrey Wright as a gay author (fairly obviously a fictionalized James Baldwin) writing a food profile that turns into a kidnapping; and a lyrical cyclist, played by Owen Wilson in a brief montage segment introducing the town. These stories are all presided over and commented upon by the Dispatch’s editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), a patient father figure who advises his incorrigibly voluble team of writers, “Whatever you write… just try to make it sound like you did it on purpose.”
It is, honestly, hard to imagine a more magnificent signature line for a film, delivered poignantly in Bill Murray’s signature crushed velvet Chicaaago baritone, melting any natural aversion I had to Anderson’s brand of practiced private schoolboy kitsch.
“Try to make it sound like you did it on purpose” is the perfect advice for writing and really, for any art. It’s also Wes Anderson’s guiding philosophy in The French Dispatch, doing all of the things he normally does, just more deliberately, and with clear purpose. It’s twee, of course, but knowingly so, fully cognizant that its turns of phrase are a little too precious and acknowledging that they are the work of someone desperate to be loved. And hey, who isn’t, deep down? The French Dispatch appeals to that little voice inside all of us that secretly thinks New Yorker cartoons are sometimes clever.
That anarchic energy Anderson once had through his wild card characters he regains in The French Dispatch, through exuberant prose, and actors whose faces always render them slightly unruly, even if their movements are so choreographed that they seem to travel on rails: Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Mathieu Almeric. You can knock Wes Anderson for his predictability, but it’s hard to argue his impeccable taste. In The French Dispatch he has created the most gorgeous, mid-century modern, glorified two-hour Stella Artois commercial you’ve ever seen. It’s something I desperately wanted to hate on the face of it but just couldn’t bring myself to. It’s too pretty. Too witty. Too romantic.
God dammit, Wes Anderson. You fucker, you absolute shit. You made me love your stupid francophone love letter to overwrought prose.