If Wes Anderson hasn’t already been ordained as the king of twee, he certainly will be with The French Dispatch. There can never have been a film so entirely marked and dominated by preciously perfectionist compositions, arcane detail, meticulous camera moves, ornate décor, historical and design minutiae, styles of typography, precision diction, arch attitude, obsessive attention to cultural artifacts and loyalty to Oscar Wilde’s notion that art needn’t express anything other than itself. This is Anderson in full flower, one that only grows in a rarified altitude. As such, it will provoke the full range of reactions, from the euphoric among pure art devotees to outright rejection by, shall we say, those not on speaking terms with ultra-refined tastes.
World premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, this is a film about and for The New Yorker constituency. If Anthony Lane doesn’t like it, there will be a price to pay. Searchlight Pictures probably shouldn’t even bother to release it in the red states, except maybe in Austin.
A fondness and sentimental nostalgia for a certain bygone aesthetic disposition and intellectual mindset nestles at the core of this mountainously quirky one-off. It’s also a film that only a highly respected veteran who has repeatedly proven capable of combining creative quirkiness with a measure of box office success could ever get away with making. And it doesn’t hurt that Anderson can round up a large stellar cast even when many of the roles are small and superficial.
The film exudes a love of — and a clear wish to have been around for — expatriate life in France in the 1920s. But instead of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot and any other real people who figured in Woody Allen’s wonderfully fanciful Midnight In Paris a decade ago, Anderson introduces a vast array of fictional characters, some of whom bear at least a passing resemblance to actual, if generally lesser-known, individuals.
First among unequals is Arthur Howitzer Jr. (a surname that might inspire anyone to stay out of his way), the editor of the eponymous publication clearly inspired by The New Yorker, which itself began publication in 1925. Bill Murray’s role is an amalgam of Harold Ross and William Shawn. Others among the plum cast sort of playing versions of real people include Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Jeffrey Wright.
But the fact that the setting is not Paris, and rather the fancifully named burg of Ennui-sur-Blasé, suggests that nothing on view here should be taken literally (the film was actually shot in the strikingly situated old south-western French city of Angoulême). Anderson overwhelms his film with so much detailed whimsy that dramatic conventions, narrative coherence and any deep meaning take a distant back seat to his entrancingly detailed doodling.
The writer-director’s script is technically divided into three sections, none of which you could call either coherent or credible; rather, they are flights of fancy taken to impressively unlikely extremes. One, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” ostensibly written by a fancy academic (Tilda Swinton), centers on violent, not-to-be-tamed “splatter-school” painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), whose mysterious and gorgeous prison guard (Léa Seydoux) becomes his lover and muse.
The narrative is impossibly far-fetched — outlandish, actually — but it’s a measure of the creator’s eccentric imagination, as well as the appeal of the two very sexy actors, that you’re persuaded to go along with this initial conceit, as it serves as an early manifestation of what became known as “modern art” in the twentieth century.
Story number two, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” the work of a political journalist (McDormand), focuses on — so what else is new? — French student revolutionaries, but with scarcely any mention of specific causes or intentions; it’s just what young people do. Most of the time, however, they sit around, pose and look cool, which Timothée Chalamet is very good at doing.
The third installment, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” also involves a jail, this one inhabited for a time by an American food critic (Jeffrey Wright) with some James Baldwin layered in.
But even this little précis makes the film seem more coherent and comprehensible than it actually is. What’s actually going on in many individual scenes is not terribly clear; they’re short, snappy, abrupt, full of arch attitude and certainly not populated by people speaking and relating to each other in a relatable manner. The visual and rhythmic stylization that Anderson achieves here is something impressive to behold, but the characters are figures in a highly stylized historical landscape populated significantly by figures who are more manifestations of intellectual and historical movements and moments rather than three-dimensional people. Which is OK for a work that resembles both a mosaic and a chessboard.
Still, much as there is a great deal to adore about Anderson’s unprecedented and unique style (it really is impossible to think of any other director in film history so enamored of and devoted to such arcane design minutiae), there isn’t enough on the narrative side of the dramatic equation to make this a fully satisfying Francophile repast.
Such cumbersome matters as narrative coherence, palpable emotional currents and anything resembling la vie quotidienne are exiled from this most rarified of cinematic environments, all the better for the flourishing of a highly artificial parallel version of life in which prostrating oneself on the altar of aestheticism for its own sake is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
It’s hard not to believe that, if he could, Anderson would not willingly jump into the world he’s so scrupulously created in The French Dispatch and live there forever. And a certain number of us might be sorely tempted to join him. The filmmaker has fashioned a fantastic and fantastical adjacent realm here like no other in filmdom, much less the real world, and for some people it’s a place they might care to visit time and again, even if Anderson himself is the only full-time resident.