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In ‘The French Dispatch,’ Wes Anderson Tries to Let His Sad Men Run Free

This visually dazzling film can sometimes feel more like a technical achievement than a satisfying emotional experience. But don’t overlook the guarded bittersweet tone underneath

For more than 25 years, Wes Anderson has been making movies about sad men. His films have grown more visually accomplished — the production design becoming more ornate, the images more stuffed with details — but what might get less attention is their consistent sense of melancholy. Depression and grief hang heavy over his characters: Richie Tenenbaum deliberately tries to kill himself, but others across his filmography do it more slowly and indirectly, through drinking or unwise decisions. Anderson’s movies can be awfully funny, but it’s more of a smile-through-the-pain sort of funny — the jokes are a way to fight against the waves of sadness. There are no tough guys in his films — not an alpha-male in the bunch — and he has a penchant for sensitive, recessive men waylaid by the general malaise that comes from being alive. Again and again, we meet smart, articulate fellows who cannot outrun their unhappiness.

Whether or not you find that sort of thing appealing is another matter entirely, of course, and plenty are either immune to or over Anderson’s shtick. He makes movies like nobody else, which is why he’s beloved and derided in equal measure. You know what you’re going to get from a Wes Anderson film, for better or worse.

So perhaps you know how you’re going to feel about his latest, The French Dispatch, which could pointlessly be described as the most Anderson-y film he’s made yet. But I will say, having seen it twice, that I enjoyed it far more the second time — partly because I found more layers to it, and partly because I had made peace with some of the inherent limitations of Anderson’s more-is-more style. What really turned it around for me, though, was discovering that, beneath the myriad levels of visual adornment and wry distancing, the sad men he’s always chronicled are alive and doing well. It’s just that, this time, they really have to fight their way through the razzle-dazzle to get noticed — which is appropriate for characters (and this movie’s very specific milieu) that have been lost to time.

As you’ve probably heard, The French Dispatch is Anderson’s love letter to The New Yorker, celebrating the near-mythic figures who worked for the hallowed publication over the years. The movie has a labored conceit: The titular literary journal, which is published in a cutesy, fictional French city, was a supplement of a Kansas newspaper, and now that its editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) has died, the publication will cease to exist. The film, then, is a collection of the journal’s more colorful stories, with each vignette corresponding to a different section of the magazine: food, culture, etc. Put more simply, Anderson has put together three short films (and one smaller narrative doodle, starring Owen Wilson as a travel writer) that are connected by the fallout from Howitzer’s death. If all that sounds exhausting and overly precious, The French Dispatch won’t be for you. But then again, it probably never would have been, right?

The first time I saw The French Dispatch a few months ago, the sheer spectacle of the thing overwhelmed everything else. I never thought I’d write such a thing, but it’s remarkable to see Anderson become the Michael Bay of arthouse cinema. Not that Anderson’s latest is nearly as incoherent, bro-y or loud as Bay’s Transformers movies, but like with 2018’s Isle of Dogs, in The French Dispatch he’s reached a level of visual overkill that’s equally disorienting. The screen is so filled with jokes, production-design details and characters — not to mention the occasional voiceover — that I couldn’t absorb it all the first time around. (To be honest, I’m not sure I did the second time, either.) He’s working at such a high level that it’s almost becoming a detriment: The French Dispatch is so visually busy that you’re nearly pushed out of the experience. It’s not quite an assault — Anderson’s usual grace and wit remains — but sometimes it gets close. 

That said, if you can surmount those obstacles — not to mention the general arch cleverness that sometimes deluges his films — The French Dispatch eventually reveals itself to be among his most bittersweet concoctions. The main characters of his three shorts are very different — an artistic sociopath, a lovelorn young revolutionary, a wandering writer — but they’re linked by a sense of not feeling at home in the world. They’re the kind of people Anderson collects in his movies. No doubt he can sympathize.

Each story has its fair share of twists and turns, so let’s keep the plots brief. Benicio del Toro plays Moses, who’s in a prison for the criminally insane, only then showing talent as a remarkable painter. His favorite subject is Simone (Léa Seydoux), a guard who’s become his reluctant muse. (She enjoys sleeping with him, but she insists she doesn’t love him back.) Moses soon attracts the attention of a fellow prisoner, Julien (Adrien Brody), a shady art dealer who thinks that this disturbed man’s abstract paintings can fetch huge amounts from prospective buyers. (Who cares if you can’t make out what’s in the paintings? That’s how you convince people they’re great.) 

In the second short, Timothée Chalamet plays Zeffirelli, a student protester whose group’s revolutionary efforts seem modeled after the May 68 events, except they’re a lot less effective. (For one thing, Zeffirelli can’t write a good manifesto to save his life and is too hung up on his girlfriend.) Into his orbit comes Lucinda (Frances McDormand), a French Dispatch journalist who wants to profile this impressionable, insecure young man. And in the final segment, Jeffrey Wright plays Roebuck, a gay food writer who, through convoluted circumstances, gets involved in a high-profle kidnappngg case, relating the whole crazy tale after the fact to a polished TV talk-show host (Liev Schreiber).

Jeffrey Wright

If you’re familiar with The New Yorker — not to mention French culture (specifically, French cinema) — you’ll get more out of The French Dispatch. All of Wes Anderson’s movies are finely crafted peculiarities tailored to his obsessions — which sometimes opens him up to accusations of cultural appropriation — but his latest is especially obscure, proudly so. (I caught the Tintin and Jacques Tati references, but I’m sure I missed dozens of others.) Still, the aggressive, rampant homages are merely the glitzy surface to this film, with each story eventually drilling down to an irreducible sadness in either Moses, Zeffirelli or Roebuck. Get past all of Anderson’s stylistic flexing — the movie switches from color to black-and-white and back again, animation is sometimes incorporated — and you’ll discover three very sad men who, for a brief moment, were part of something momentous. 

Anderson always gets precise, wry performances out of his ensembles, but del Toro does something warmer than we normally see from these films. His Moses may be a murderer, but there’s a soulfulness to the guy that’s quite lovely — although, again, this man has killed. Del Toro has become a master at balancing his imposing demeanor with a quiet sweetness, and in The French Dispatch that juxtaposition is both touching and a dark joke about all the “troubled” artists who do monstrous things but still create masterworks. Seydoux is wonderfully icy as his muse, which only makes Moses’ puppy-dog eyes all the more pathetic: Even monsters think they’re worthy of love.

As for Chalamet and Wright, they give endearing portraits of men at very different moments of their lives. Zeffirelli is all youthful idealism and immature posturing — he’s the very model of the wildly romantic, hopelessly moony French youth — while Roebuck is an older writer grappling with homophobia and the inherent disappointments that come with age. Chalamet plays his character with twitchy impulsiveness, while Wright goes for a bone-deep reflectiveness. Both writers, Zeffirelli and Roebuck represent all that’s wonderful and hard about the profession — the thrill of creating, but also the daily confrontation with the limits of one’s own talent. (McDormand, also playing a writer, is The French Dispatch’s lone sad woman, facing some of the same existential crises as her male peers.) Writing is fundamentally a solitary life — it’s just you and the page — and the film finds the pathos in the occupation. Zeffirelli and Roebuck come from completely dissimilar circumstances, and yet you could see how one man could eventually grow up and become the other, anxious restlessness giving way to wistful resignation. 

From left to right: Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet

Stereotypically, sensitive people gravitate to the arts — it’s a way for them to express things about life they can’t otherwise get out — and it’s telling that all three of The French Dispatch’s stories are, essentially, about artists. This is a nostalgic movie that mourns the impermanence of everything, whether it’s love, success, youth or a literary journal like The French Dispatch. But it’s also about the struggle to put good work out into the world. Which is why you can’t talk about the movie’s litany of sad men without talking about the man who made it. 

I’ve never bought the criticism that Wes Anderson’s films are just quirky curios. (The real feeling in Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Grand Budapest Hotel is impossible to deny, especially in their nuanced portrayal of those complicated main characters.) And after watching The French Dispatch a second time, I realized I was moved by all its show-stopping overexuberance. And that’s because I stopped seeing it as pure stylish indulgence and, rather, as a way for Anderson to counterbalance the deep well of sorrow going on underneath. Often in his movies, his characters crack jokes, even at their most melancholy — it’s their defense mechanism — and I started to suspect maybe the same was true of Anderson, who’s as much of an artist as anyone in The French Dispatch

As the film ends, the journal’s staff gather to say goodbye, remembering their editor’s mantra: No crying. Sentimentality was something Arthur Howitzer Jr. wouldn’t tolerate, and similarly, you don’t see much crying in Wes Anderson’s films. But there’s plenty of sadness coursing through his work — particularly in The French Dispatch. Anderson sometimes lets this film’s elaborate construction distract from that fact, but that doesn’t mean we should.

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