Wes Anderson already had two features under his belt when The Royal Tenenbaums was released in 2001. There was his debut, Bottle Rocket, a lo-fi comedy about inept would-be criminals played by Luke and Owen Wilson that looks downright naturalistic compared with what would come after. Then there was Rushmore, about the friendship between a teenage oddball played by Jason Schwartzman and a wealthy depressive played by Bill Murray, the Anderson film that even the Anderson averse admit to tolerating. But it was Tenenbaums — a star-laden dramedy about a dysfunctional family of former child prodigies living in a fanciful Manhattan that stretches up to 375th Street — that would separate the fans from the haters. In this film, the intricate, airless visual style and tone of wistful melancholy for which Anderson has become famous would really cohere. If you had a taste for his whole thing, Tenenbaums marked the point at which you would know.
As someone who, with exceptions, usually does have a taste for Anderson’s work, I have come to accept that his movies cannot and should not be foisted on the resistant. This is more true than ever when it comes to the almost unbearably on-brand The French Dispatch, an anthology centered on a fictional magazine, a film that plays like a counterpart to The Royal Tenenbaums’ dog-eared literary fantasia. While Tenenbaums takes place in a construct of New York as built up in the head of a Texas teenager as he pored over back issues of The New Yorker, The French Dispatch is flat-out New Yorker fanfiction. It doesn’t pretend for a second that Ennui-sur-Blasé, the cutesily named town in which it takes place, is real. The town is the receptacle for year-abroad fantasies, a setting where even the crime (like the menacing gangs of choirboys roaming the streets) is delightful. The artificiality of Anderson’s work has always been a feature, not a bug. He may have stopped making films about his home state of Texas after Rushmore, but he never really abandoned the perspective of a kid dreaming about distant locales. The French Dispatch takes place not in the France where Anderson himself has lived for years but in a France of the imagination.
The film, which is set in the ’60s and was shot in the real city of Angoulême, kicks off with the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Murray, Anderson’s favorite elusive patriarch), the founder and editor of the eponymous fictional magazine. The wayward son of a newspaper owner, Arthur went to France as a young man and never came back. The French Dispatch first came to life as an insert in his father’s paper, the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, an assumed loving act of nepotism. Arthur grew it into a successful publication, one he nevertheless dictated would end with his passing.
The film’s format mimics the collection of stories that make up the final issue. There are smaller bits of business — like Owen Wilson as travel correspondent Herbsaint Sazerac riding around on a bicycle while delivering a high-flown description of life in Ennui-sur-Blasé — in addition to three longer “features.” One of those, about a brilliant incarcerated artist named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), as described by art specialist J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), is droll and charming. Another, about the 1968 unrest led by student Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and reported by staffer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), is borderline intolerable. The third piece, about a hostage situation that writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) stumbles into while reporting a food story, is sublime.
The French Dispatch flickers between vibrant color and nostalgic black-and-white, with the latter sometimes indicating a look back into the past. It’s as stuffed with visual detail as it is with Anderson’s regular collaborators, and big names like Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan show up in what amount to cameos. But Wright — playing Roebuck as a man who owes something to both James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling — is new to Anderson’s universe, and his performance teases out the underlying heartache like no one else’s in the film. Roebuck’s segment is framed by his appearance on a talk show to chat with a host played by Liev Schreiber, who begs him to recount the story of how what was meant to be a trip to sample “police cuisine,” a haute cooking style shaped by the needs of cops and perfected by the great chef Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), ended up giving him a front-row seat to what happened when the Commissaire’s (Mathieu Amalric) young son was kidnapped.
It’s a romp, full of touches that go by almost too quickly to pick up on — I was partial to the strongman who plays a small but key role — but the lingering mood is unmistakably sad. Each of the features stresses the solitary nature of writing and the ways in which the departed Arthur coddled and protected his stable of scribes, one of whom has never filed anything. The French Dispatch longs for a departed era of creative indulgence, for a time when journalists were able to turn in 10,000 words of noodling and expense the hotel rooms where they dallied with former lovers as research — extravagances that, as much as they ever existed, were offered only to a select few. But Roebuck also recollects how, after he was caught in a raid on a gay bar, Arthur, whom he had never met in person, retrieved him from jail and offered him a job. The moment speaks to something Anderson has always been good at: using the painstakingly assembled panoramas he creates as sanctuaries for his characters, who carry real suffering.
Putting your personal vision of other places and times onscreen can mean revealing your baggage, and Anderson hasn’t always shown an awareness of his own. He has seemed indifferent to the fact that a fantasy take on Japan can come across as vaguely fetishistic, while a fantasy take on France feels less fraught. (And even then, the film’s reduction of a political uprising to a symptom of youthful fervor comes as a minor affront.) But if his elaborately art-directed universes can be stifling, they can be comforting, too. After all, The French Dispatch imagines a portal between a sturdy midwestern town and the art, culture, and cuisine of Europe. One of the privileges of filmmaking is the power to re-create the world as you would like it to be. There has never been any doubt what Anderson’s looks like.
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