Wes Anderson is a tricky customer, perhaps one of the most divisive directors in modern times. Whether you appreciate his latest film, The French Dispatch, as with almost all his films, seems to depend entirely on whether you love his profoundly individual cinematics or revile them. Certainly, this new film will do nothing to convert Anderson atheists, as it shows the director operating on a level of Wes Anderson squared.
The French Dispatch takes place in the offices of a magazine loosely based on The New Yorker, set in a fictional French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé, which is clearly modeled on Paris. From the start, a linguistic fussiness and archness of tone are evident, in a dominant voice-over that accumulates detail and eccentric turns of phrase, and exquisitely crafted film sets that are self-consciously artificial. In several scenes, decors are dismantled, or give way to different sets, creating a kind of hall of mirrors which never reflects back at us a recognizable reality. All the characters here are types of some sort—the young revolutionary, the lonely spinster-writer, the moustache-twirling chef—who are depicted against stiff, rigidly symmetrical backdrops. This gives the film the feel of a doll’s house populated with puppets, acting as the director sees fit.
Being an omnipotent artist is no bad thing in itself: Muriel Spark, for instance, always said that her characters had no life of their own and existed within her novels merely as expressions of what she wanted them to do. Anderson’s films work similarly to Spark’s novels, in that both highlight their artifice, the artfulness of their construction, rather than dialing down into any psychological interiority that the characters might have. Yet Spark’s books have a lot to say about the human condition, and they are sharp in observing the messiness, the unpredictability of our lives. Anderson’s films—and this one perhaps most of all, which fully ramps up his trademark aesthetics and storytelling—are about placing figures within various immaculately-constructed settings to construct tableaux that are nifty. Too often, Anderson demands of his actors a mannerism that is cartoon-like: eyeballs filmed in close-up that deliberately follow the action; a startled face poking out at a diagonal from a hard vertical line, such as a curtain; a frazzled wild-haired profile filmed against an exquisitely-tonsured backdrop. At one point in the film, Anderson replaces the action with an actual cartoon, in the vein of various New Yorker covers, and it’s notable how little this changes from the live figures that he bends to his own properties.
The French Dispatch focuses on a small handful of narratives, loosely connected because they are set to make up the very last issue of the magazine edited by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). This framework gives Anderson the opportunity to have some fun with Frenchness, and he duly serves up some smug in-jokes, from the town name Ennui-sur-Blasé to the name of a famous chef featured in the film, called ‘Nescaffier,’ a play on the famous chef Escoffier and the soluble coffee Nescafe. This, to me, doesn’t count as a joke, but perhaps it appeals to certain urbane types who can congratulate themselves on picking up the references. At other times, Anderson’s supposed wit is patronizing, as when, during an episode set during May ‘68, we glimpse graffiti saying, “Les enfants sont grognons” (“the children are grumpy”). This is a cutesy little gag, relying on knowing a bit of French, but it also significantly underplays the events of that social revolution, infantilizing its participants and minimizing its impact.
Different vignettes show a writer played by Owen Wilson, giving us a guided tour of Ennui (where the drug addicts and sex workers are presented just as immaculately as dactylographers), and a writer played by Frances McDormand working on a story about French revolutionaries, as well as a long sequence about a prisoner/artist (Benicio del Toro) whose angry abstract paintings are filmed as so much decorative set dressing.
Accompanying all this, Anderson’s extraordinary eye for physical comedy, for the mechanics of film gags, makes the film come alive at times. Anderson has clearly drawn from Jacques Tati, perhaps a little from Tintin, and he duly creates vignettes that are terrifically clever in the way they play with the properties of film, using depth of focus, symmetry, sets, costume and actors to create some nifty surprises. One such pleasure comes when Tilda Swinton (weirdly kitted out like Margaret Thatcher), while presenting a slideshow, inadvertently or perhaps purposely displays a slide of herself in a state of undress: this is sharply edited, sweetly written and dryly performed, giving us a very slick visual gag which works by injecting a bit of sauce into Anderson’s pristine, endlessly classy visuals. But even this sort of humor starts to feel smug after a while, as the comedy of putting a bit of mess, a weird surprise, within a stiffly-arranged setting, only has so many variables.
Anderson clearly has an eye: everything in The French Dispatch is exquisitely fine-tuned, from the colors to the immaculately staged compositions, via the absurdly lyrical voice-over. But The French Dispatch feels more than usually airless, because it isn’t interested in the business of understanding people and their lives. If you enjoy beautiful dolls’ houses, and making up stories about the beautiful figurines within them, then The French Dispatch is up your alley. If, however, you are interested in ambiguity, in the ways that our bodies and minds can surprise us within an unpredictable world, then the tyrannical eye of The French Dispatch is not for you.