The French Dispatch Is a Profoundly Great Film About the Nature of Art and Freedom
A twee, fussy, brilliant movie from a pathologically twee and fussy director.
If you want to know what you'll think of the new Wes Anderson movie, The French Dispatch, consider the following description a test: In the opening minutes of the film, we are treated to what amounts to a slideshow and monologue about the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (yep), delivered by a character named Herbsaint Sazerac (double yep), a magazine correspondent who wears a muddy brown turtleneck and a dark beret (for those keeping track, we have now achieved a rare triple yep)—and who is played with winsome, deadpan earnestness by a bicycle-riding Owen Wilson. (I regret to inform you that I am out of yeps.)
For some, this will sound insufferably twee and ironic. For others, it will sound twee and ironic in precisely the right proportions, because it will sound…well, like a Wes Anderson movie.
Anderson has been making movies like this—fussy, imaginative, self-contained, whimsical, and aggressively, almost absurdly, symmetrical—for a quarter-century now, to the annoyance of some and the delight of many. Count me among those who take delight in his work: I find Anderson's movies cleverly amusing at worst, wondrous and moving at best. And The French Dispatch is Anderson at his best. An ecstatic, elaborate tribute to highbrow, general-interest magazines, most especially The New Yorker, it's a clockwork marvel of intricate imagery and periphrastic wordplay. Just as a Swiss watch justifies itself on the elegant complexity of its time-keeping movement, Anderson's film justifies its existence on its stylistic brio alone: It's different to think of another picture so meticulous, so finicky, so dense with detail and winking, knowing reference—except perhaps another Wes Anderson movie.
Anderson's signature tics are on full display here, possibly even more than in any previous movie he's made. Every frame is stuffed with detail, every shot is composed with immaculate precision. The tone is part dry comedy, part wryly sentimental melodrama, part zany Looney Tunes escapade; occasionally the film bursts into lively, manic animated sequences, reinforcing the sense that the production exists entirely in the giddy comic dreamworld of Anderson's imagination.
Critics have occasionally griped that Anderson's movies are so obsessed with aesthetics that they leave his meanings muddled, that his compulsively twee, over-manicured sensibility sometimes feels like an end unto itself rather than a vehicle for something more. But over time, Anderson has widened his thematic scope, turning his attention from the dramas of difficult families to larger issues of authoritarianism and cultural acceptance, even as he has burrowed further into his own treasure chest of stylistic gimmicks.
And in this case, he couldn't possibly be more clear: The French Dispatch is about humans yearning for freedom, artistic and otherwise, and the strange places that the search for meaning inevitably sends us.
Those notions are built into the name of the magazine that is the movie's periodical subject and full-length title, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun (it's a Sunday supplement), and into the only piece of advice that the Dispatch's editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., modeled partly on New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross and played by Bill Murray, gives to his writers: "Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose."
The movie is not only about a magazine; it is structured to resemble one, with an obit, Sazerac's brief travelogue, and three reported features, each an extended vignette as narrated by the writer of the piece. The first concerns a prisoner (Benicio del Toro) who is also an artist who is determined not to produce a commercial product; the second, a chess-playing leader of a student political revolt (Timothée Chalamet) who ends up sleeping with the older female journalist (Frances McDormand) who is writing a story about him; the third, a kidnapping gone wrong, a gay black journalist in the mold of James Baldwin (Jeffrey Wright), and, eventually, a chef (Stephen Park) whose culinary handiwork helps rescue a child.
And thus each of the features reflects on the nature of art and freedom, expression and repression: The first raises questions about an artist who has literally lost his liberty, the second about the difficulties of both political revolution and journalistic neutrality, the third about the power of both writing and a well-made creation—a meal, in this case—to right social and individual wrongs. It is the desire to create that makes us human, the desire to package our loves, obsessions, desires, and terrors into some formal, self-contained vehicle for self-expression. It is not an accident that each of the features is displayed primarily in black and white. The movie briefly turns them into color only in a few rare moments of artistic revelation. Art literally brightens this world.
Yes, Wes Anderson has made a movie the purpose of which is, in some sense, to justify the existence of Wes Anderson movies. But it is also an attempt to universalize that justification, to share it with viewers rather than hoard it only for Anderson and his films. We are all trapped between liberty and ennui, the movie seems to say, all imprisoned by our desires and our circumstances—and so we must make do as best we can. The real trick is to try to make it look like we did it that way on purpose.