Sometimes things just click: Cookies and milk, peanut butter and jelly, a burger and fries. Yet somehow it took this long to finally realize the commonalities and perfect pairing that is Wes Anderson and The New Yorker — it feels almost too perfect. They certainly share some sensibilities; call it an appreciation of the finer things, coupled with a neat and pleasing organizational sense. Anderson, a director of live-action movies with the visual imagination of cartoons and cartoons with the deep soul of live action, has a style so singular it can be identified from a single frame plucked from the celluloid reels he shoots on. Yet there is an ancestor for his beloved approach, and that one big influence has to be that aforementioned magazine which he’s said to have consumed religiously in college; it’s from such pages where he might’ve drawn his at once refined and playful sense of humor, an affinity for symmetries and pastels, and a voracious appetite for literary pleasures. Were Wes Anderson an airline, The New Yorker would undoubtedly be its in-flight magazine. And The French Dispatch (or The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is Anderson’s love letter to that ninety-six-year-old publication — and by extension, to the near-century of art, writing, and reporting contained within it. The magazine has been lightly fictionalized as the overseas satellite outpost of an American newspaper of the film’s title — a staff of correspondents based in a fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Their fearless leader, guiding and “coddling” their peculiarities, is Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a benevolent crank plainly modeled on The New Yorker‘s first editor, Harold W. Ross.
Keeping with its literary love, The French Dispatch adopts a chapter-like structure, as if the movie itself was an issue of its titular magazine, recounting three nonfiction reports from its final edition. In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” we see Benicio Del Toro play an imprisoned artist, enthralled by a guard (Léa Seydoux) as he abstractly paints her in the nude, and garners much attention from the art world, including his cutthroat dealer (Adrien Brody). “Revisions to a Manifesto” is Anderson’s tribute to the French student protests of 1968, with Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as idealistic teens who fall in love, even as they drift into different factions of the movement. And “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” follows a quirky human interest story about the culinary preoccupations of a law enforcement commander (Mathieu Amalric) as it explodes into a hostage situation.
The anthology format fits Anderson quite well. Working with a giant ensemble of old and new collaborators, he dabbles in playfully exaggerated art-world satire, pivots to an extended homage to the French New Wave, and finally indulges in one of his signature madcap chases. The storytelling is as paramount as the stories themselves. Building on the nesting-doll games of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson cuts back and forth from the tales themselves to their authors recounting them, whether it be on stage during a lecture or on a Dick Cavett-like talk show. He nestles frames within frames. This sophisticated structural gambit centers the perspective of the fearless reporters, raising questions about how to contain the uncontainable, to condense all the nuances of real life into a digestible form. One might even call it Anderson’s meditation on his own career-long attempts to impose meticulous order on life without totally denying its inherent messiness. Budding journalists were once taught, in an age before narcissistic memoir hijacked the media landscape, that they are not the story. But Anderson reckons in The French Dispatch with how great reporters imprint themselves on their work without literally placing themselves within it.
That each of the writers — respectively played by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright — are based on alums of The New Yorker‘s historic pool of contributors reflects the sheer, very specific depth of Anderson’s homage. To unpack The French Dispatch‘s library of touchstones would require multiple viewings and maybe even a bibliography; he’s always nodding to a inspiration of this field or that, every person on screen inspired by some famous figure in a way. Footnotes would pop with the names of the art dealer Joseph Duveen, filmmaker Jean Renoir, one-time student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, mononymous French singer Christophe, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, and many more. At this point in his career, Anderson is operating on a level of incredible detail, density of set design, and compositional precision that no one else could really match. Every shot here is an event, a peerless punchline, a work of art, or all three. In addition to the trifecta of vignettes, the film includes a travelogue segment from the magazine’s “cyclist reporter” (Owen Wilson) that functions as an overview of the magazine’s town of operations, and it’s a miniature masterpiece of montage that clarifies Anderson as a kindred spirit to the late, unrivaled French expert of comic framing, Jacques Tati. More than just a head-spinning joke machine, this cinematic “Goings On About Town” runs all of French culture through the Andersonian filter, finally adding a French spot to Wes’ growing atlas of storybook locales.
Remarkably, he’s still adding new tricks to his bottomless bag of them, including an intentional alternating between color and black-and-white. Many of his most extravagant flourishes here seem catered to the project’s feature-length expression of New Yorker fandom (and even to the French New Wave). From an animated interlude that recalls French comic books, to subtitles that populate bottom to top and contain parentheticals, to moments of the cast freezing in place and sometimes visibly struggling to hold their position as if emulating a still photograph. (The latter moments, in particular, operate quite well as a sly microcosm of Anderson’s entire method of working: the way imperfect humanity crucially creeps into his perfect arrangements.) The challenge of the anthology format is to get an audience invested in characters that, by necessity, must be painted in quick brushstrokes. The French Dispatch unfolds at a brisk montage speed, making there be little room for a full fleshing out. Yet Anderson generously seasons each story with disarming moments. One sneaks up on you with an unexpected casualty, a bright future cut short. Another slaps a startlingly profound encounter at the end involving the taste of poison; in that latter moment in particular, there’s a delight in the way that even the storyteller isn’t convinced that it belongs, while the editor believes it’s the whole emotional fulcrum of the piece.
The key to The French Dispatch‘s sneaky resonance, tucked into the spaces between its moving parts, is Anderson’s balancing act of reverence and irreverence. He sees the humor in artistic pretension — in the self-seriousness of tortured artists and rebellious youth. But he also believes in their belief systems, or at least their capacity to believe so passionately in something. If he’s teasing the subjects of each imaginary profile, it’s a fundamentally affectionate teasing. Melancholy has always lurked beneath his comedies, often cutting off his detractors’ attempts to reduce his work as some empty dollhouse of strictly cosmetic concerns. That we’re seeing the final issue of this titular publication is no accident. It speaks to the inherently eulogistic nature of this film in particular, and of Anderson’s recent work in general. Here, he’s bidding farewell to a bygone era of arts appreciation, and penning a valentine to not just the specific New Yorker contributors that sparked his imagination but also to a profession under recent attack.
The French Dispatch will, of course, speak to anyone of that system — any writer who’s watched their word counts shrink, or plainly lost their place of work. But this is a movie that speaks much deeper than just the struggling press. It should be noted here that the real Liberty, Kansas, has a population just north of three digits. Relocating a mass of cosmopolitan sophistication to a speck on the map is a joke with reservoirs of deeper meaning. The New Yorker‘s aforementioned founder, Harold Ross, once quipped that the magazine may not be “edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” But that it may speak to her anyway, that it’s an American publication relevant to all the thinkers and aficionados all of which reside far beyond the big city where it takes its name. And the very same could be said of a Wes Anderson film. Practically overwhelming in its elaborately dense dioramic detail, The French Dispatch is vivacious in its rakish wit and dizzying in its impressionistic splendor.
The French Dispatch is playing in Theaters nationwide