Wes Anderson’s cinematic style did not appear fully formed. It took a few movies over five years before Anderson locked in on formal compositions, planimetric framing, cuts along the 90-degree axis, diorama-esque interiors, Richard Scarry-like landscapes, idiosyncratic dialogue, peculiar characters, and fastidious control over colors and props. Everything in an Anderson frame has a place, and he has a place for everything.
The results can be mixed. When Anderson’s at his best, it’s transformative. When he’s not, it’s like watching Tim Duncan play basketball: I respect the craft even if the results aren’t engaging.
Those are quibbles, though, because The French Dispatch is a thoroughly enjoyable and funny film. It might be Anderson’s zaniest: a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet— Frankly, we don’t have time to run through them all, and neither does The French Dispatch. Anderson jams his movie so full of marquee actors, half of them feel like stunt casting. Henry Winkler is in a few scenes, but I can’t remember if he says anything. Elisabeth Moss has a line, two at most.
The story here is equally, and delightfully, all over the place. Inspired by The New Yorker—with Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Murray) standing in for Harold Ross and William Shawn, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is a weekly magazine featuring reviews, goings-on, reports on art (high and low), politics, science, and travel. Using four vignettes, Anderson structures his movie like you were reading the magazine cover to cover. The first has Herbsaint Sazerac (Wilson) providing a 300-word tour through Ennui-sur-Blasé, the setting of Dispatch. The second is a profile of renowned modernist painter Moses Rosenthaler (Del Toro), an inmate serving a life sentence for beheading two bartenders. The third chronicles a student revolutionary movement led by Zeffirelli B (Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). And the fourth follows Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), the personal chef of the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric).
There are reference points to them all. The second story, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” has shades of Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up. “Revisions to a Manifesto” draws on Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin—even borrowing Chantal Goya’s pop song, “Tu m’as trop menti.” And the author of “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), is styled after writer James Baldwin. None of them feel like rip-offs, more like helpful guides pointing you to other works of art. It’s fun to think they all inhabit the same whimsical universe. And these references are but three; hundreds more exist. You could fill a book about them. Even money says David Bordwell and Matt Zoller Seitz will.
But playing the reference game distracts from the almost assaultive number of textures Anderson throws at the audience. Dispatch has every tick and trait of his previous work and throws in a few more: 2D animation, nudity, black and white cinematography that transitions to color and back again. It’s as if Anderson is pushing his style to the breaking point to see if it’ll shatter. It doesn’t, but there’s a moment in “Revisions of a Manifesto” when Robert Yeoman’s cinematography abruptly shifts to handheld. In a movie of static frames and smooth tracking shots, a slightly shaky camera is jarring. I would guess that Yeoman and Anderson wanted to invoke the spirit of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Or maybe they just wanted the image to call attention to itself. Everything in The French Dispatch does. We’re watching a movie, and Anderson never wants us to forget.
The French Dispatch (2021)
Written and directed by Wes Anderson
Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman
Produced by Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Steve Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss
Searchlight Pictures, Rated R, Running time 108 minutes, Opens Oct. 22, 2021.