I greet each new Wes Anderson film with a mixture of anticipation and dread. I’m interested in everything the eccentric American author does – including his H&M and American Express commercials – but I also know that I love some of his films (Rushmore) and hate others (The Darjeeling Limited) , and I’m not even sure where the tipping point between love and hate is.
Will I find a new project delightfully charming or unbearably twee, delicately sad or emotionally inert? My confusion seems shared. If you look at the best to worst ratings of his films – and they’re all over the internet, with a lot of filmmakers sniping in the comment sections – almost every Anderson fan finds the ratings of all other Anderson fans incomprehensible. .
When I first saw the trailer for Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, it was so quintessentially Andersonian that I thought it might be an elaborate parody. I was happy to find out that the film exists – and even more relieved to find that I love it.
Anderson’s 10th feature film centers around The French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, a weekly magazine created by expatriate American writers based in the (obviously fictional) French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.
The movie is Peak Wes Anderson, and my Wes Anderson bingo card was filled almost immediately. Expect the usual deadpan delivery, carefully researched typefaces, archaic technologies, symmetrical framing, intricate cross-sections, Bill Murray’s hanging face, retro suitcases (not to mention the use of the word “suitcase “).
The story is barely held together but still holds. As their final issue approaches, the magazine’s staff and freelancers recall some of their best stories. Starting with a city tour of Boredom, an Owen Wilson wearing a beret takes us to the Flop Quarter and Hovel Quarter, among other scenic destinations.
Art critic JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton) pays tribute to artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Founder of the French action group Splatter-School, all of Rosenthaler’s work is performed in a prison wing for insane criminals. Anderson consciously plays with the myth of the tortured artist before ending everything with a spectacular confrontation between commerce and creativity.
Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand, playing a version of Canadian writer Mavis Gallant) recounts the troubles of the youth of the 1960s, which involved Maoist feuds, the music of Serge-Gainsbourg-by-way-of-Jarvis-Cocker and Timothée Chalamet smoking in the bath. At one point, the police and revolutionary students try to end their confrontation with a game of chess.
Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a figure inspired by James Baldwin and New Yorker food critic AJ Liebling, considers the work of Chef Nescaffier (Stepjen Park), who cooks exclusively for police officers, specializing in foods that provide all-day energy and late-night comfort, but don’t spill over into their notebooks. This food magazine almost immediately wanders off into a kidnapping hug involving a typically precocious child Wes Anderson.
The French dispatch is delightfully controlled but still alive, filled with visual interest and quick puns. Anderson slides through multiple formats – graphic novels, TV talk shows, lectures, plays. He riffs on the French New Wave, the films of Jacques Tati and especially the work of Wes Anderson. He goes from cold black and white to very distinctive color schemes, sometimes within the same scene, and easily switches between irony and sincerity.
The style is there, but I think I really like the movie because of its subject matter. The French dispatch is a love letter to the old-fashioned print media, complete with ink presses, Andretti typewriters and red pencil edition. “Just try to make it look like you wrote it that way on purpose,” Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Murray) advises his writers. In particular, the film pays a nostalgic tribute to the long-term, cosmopolitan and cultured journalism of the New Yorker and The Parisian review.
It’s charming but also a bit disturbing, as Anderson only creates valentines for things that are about to disappear: the innocence of childhood, first love, good manners, luxurious train travel, the last vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The written press is therefore probably doomed to failure, but The French dispatch is a beautiful eulogy.
A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor was considering becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
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