cannes 2021

In French Dispatch, There’s Darkness at the Edge of Wes Anderson’s Technicolor Dream

Hollywood’s least-contemporary filmmaker has made a movie all about prison, protests, and police. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

When it comes to aesthetics, Wes Anderson and The New Yorker seem as snug a fit as one of the director’s trademark suits. So expectations were always high for The French Dispatch, the director’s self-proclaimed “love letter to journalists,” even before the film was added to the Cannes competition lineup, thus ensuring this movie about American reporters in France would first be seen by … American reporters in France. (And, to be fair, other nationalities, too.) Perhaps that’s why, as the credits rolled on Monday afternoon’s press screening, the film was treated to a small smattering of boos, the first I’ve heard all festival. Did the booers think the film didn’t hit the lofty heights expected of a competition title? With Anderson returning to live action for the first time since the beloved Grand Budapest Hotel, did they feel he was ripe for being taken down a peg? Or were they Gallic critics who found The French Dispatch a hipster Emily in Paris, an American vision of France that had little to do with the real thing? Unfortunately, they fled into the dark before I could debate them on the essential role imagination plays in Anderson’s filmography, which would surely have been an exciting time for us both.

Whoever they were, and whatever their motives, their vocal dislike doesn’t represent the critical consensus on The French Dispatch, which most of us seemed to enjoy without thinking it approached the highs of Grand Budapest or The Royal Tenenbaums. The film takes the form of the final issue of the titular Dispatch, the Continental outpost for an American newspaper, devoted to giving heartland readers a glimpse of French life and culture, and headquartered in the imaginary city of Ennui, which lies on the Blasé River, two names that should give you a good preview of the type of humor we’re working with here. Accordingly, Anderson has given us an anthology, made up of everything you’d expect in a New Yorker issue: a table of contents, some lighthearted sketches, and then three meaty features. (No crossword, unfortunately, though I would have liked to see him try.)

First, an obituary. The film opens with the death of the Dispatch’s beloved founder and editor (Bill Murray), a man with only two rules: “Don’t cry,” and “Try to make it seem like you wrote it that way on purpose.” It’s 1975, and it’s clear his death marks the end of a golden age, not least because his will stipulates the magazine must immediately shut down. (Note that 1975 is also the year of Jaws, the eventual death knell for the quirky ’70s comedies Anderson grew up loving.) As often in Anderson’s work, the film is marked by a bittersweet sense of being slightly out of time: Two of the stories are narrated by their middle-aged writers from the vantage point of the garish ’70s, looking back on articles they wrote in the glory days of the ’50s and ’60s. The ’70s scenes are in color; the flashbacks are mostly in black-and-white, though sometimes they’re in color, too. (As far as I can tell, whenever we’re seeing the dramatization of the actual writing in the story, that’s black-and-white, but I’m willing to accept other theories.)

The first, and the best, of the stories is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” in which Tilda Swinton’s art critic, in full Katharine Graham drag, tells the story of a brilliant painter (Benicio Del Toro) who also happens to be a homicidal maniac, and the prison guard (Léa Seydoux) who becomes his lover and muse. There’s a frisson of Phantom Thread–style domination and submission to their relationship — she has endless patience for what his art demands of her, but outside the studio, shepherding his genius sometimes requires a stern hand. They face off against an art dealer played by Adrien Brody, who, just like in Grand Budapest, represents soul-destroying greed. (“All artists sell their art,” he sneers. “That’s what makes them artists.”) It all moves at a characteristically madcap pace, but Del Toro and Seydoux’s scenes together are the closest this whirlwind movie comes to finding a human soul. Possibly because this is where Anderson feels like he’s got the tightest bead on what he’s trying to say — something about the ineffability of art, the power of defiance.

More confused is “Revisions to a Manifesto,” a lighthearted satire of ’60s student radicals (here their slogan translates to “The children are grumpy”), starring Frances McDormand as a reporter unable to maintain journalistic neutrality in the case of Timothée Chalamet’s star-crossed protest leader. It’s mostly a clothesline for gags — about how every French New Wave film has a guy getting sent to Algeria, and how everyone in plays speaks with a British accent — and for putting the two stars in bed together, meaning that Chalamet has now hooked up onscreen with both of the front-runners from the 2018 Best Actress race. Anderson attempts both a gimlet-eyed take on the follies of the activist left and a tribute to their utopian optimism, but he can’t quite thread the needle, and the segment’s tragic conclusion comes too quickly to make much of an impact.

And then there’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” in which Jeffrey Wright’s James Baldwin pastiche attempts to profile a chef who’s an expert on “police dinners” (they must be able to be eaten one-handed, and silently) and winds up embroiled in a hard-bitten crime saga. Wright is another standout, making a meal of the literary narration, and amid the orgy of gunplay and animated car chases, he also gets some quiet moments reflecting Anderson’s larger points about the creative process. Near the close of his tale, he and Murray discuss the ending of the story. Wright thinks it’s fine as is, but Murray wants something more. Wright returns with a bit he scrapped; it’s slightly purple, more nakedly emotional. “That’s the best part,” Murray says, and so they put it in. Was he right? I’ve gone back and forth.

I have so far neglected to mention the whimsy, in part because this is a Wes Anderson film and I don’t know if there’s anything new to say on that front. Suffice it to say that the movie also includes a segment where Owen Wilson plays a bicycling, beret-wearing travel reporter, and let’s leave it at that.

What’s more interesting, I think, are the increasingly dark tones at the edges of Anderson’s Technicolor dream. This is a director whose last live-action film ended with fascism descending on Central Europe, so it’s not exactly new, but still, it’s striking how much of The French Dispatch, which began shooting way back in the fall of 2018, turns out to mirror the cultural flash points of the past 14 months — somehow, Hollywood’s least-contemporary filmmaker has made a movie all about prison, protests, police. Perhaps all those boos were merely an expression of dismay: If even Wes Anderson is picking up on this stuff, we’re fucked.

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Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch Has Darkness at Its Edges