The French Dispatch | ★★★½ | Now playing in theaters
Director Wes Anderson’s films are easy to like. With their florid art design and meticulous visual compositions, his movies are always beautiful to behold. The dense and cerebral dialogue is likewise lovely, once you’re persuaded to roll with the vibe.
But, somehow, Wes Anderson movies aren’t that easy to love.
The same insistent aesthetic choices that make his films so unique also present an impediment to emotional connection. Anderson’s movies tend to be pretty, charming, and chilly.
That’s the situation with the director’s latest high-concept arthouse initiative, The French Dispatch, which is entirely enjoyable without being particularly engaging.
I liked the movie a lot, but rather in the way that I might like a complicated painting hanging in an upscale gallery, where the thermostat is set too low and the docents keep giving me the stink eye.
The film is an anthology of three short stories, plus a prelude, each set in mid-20th-century France, and each with a connection to the overarching framing narrative. That bigger connecting story concerns an English-language publication called The French Dispatch, staffed by eccentric writers and cranky expats.
The film is inspired by The New Yorker magazine back in its imperial phase, when it regularly featured legendary writers like James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, and J.D. Salinger.
Anderson’s script is an elaborate construction. The first story, concerning a feral painter (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard muse (Léa Seydoux), is told through several layers of artifice. It’s a short film about a magazine story delivered via public lecture (by Tilda Swinton), occasionally interrupted with backstory and commentary from a narrator (Anjelica Huston) and the Dispatch editor in chief (Bill Murray).
It’s a complicated arrangement and each of the three stories is formatted with similar addenda—flashbacks, footnotes, sidebars. To accommodate all these layers, Anderson employs his usual dizzying array of cinematic maneuvers, including split-screen formatting, blown-out color palettes, voice-overs, freeze frames, title cards, animation, shifting aspect ratio, monochrome sequences, and playful subtitles. (Watch for those: some jokes play out entirely within the subtitles.)
It’s a testament to Anderson’s particularly fussy genius that all this relentless stylization mostly works. I was seldom confused as to what was happening, story-wise, even as the movie shuttles up and down through its various levels of commentary and jokey artistic remove.
The problem was that I didn’t much care about what was happening or—a much bigger problem—whom it was happening to. The French Dispatch is jammed with enormously appealing performers: Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Timothée Chalamet, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson (of course), Mathieu Amalric, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz, and hey —is that Henry Winkler? It is!
These are extremely lovable movie stars, each and every one, but they’re caught in the exquisite clockwork gears of Anderson’s brain. The film’s second and third stories, concerning a student protest and a criminal caper, are even busier than the first. The character through-lines become impossible to follow, terminally tangled with visual puns, literary allusions, and aesthetic flourishes.
Even with an artist as accomplished as Anderson, a film can suffer from Too Much Style. It’s hard to care about a movie when you don’t care about its people.
Then again, I suspect that The French Dispatch may be one of those movies that improves upon second viewing.
I simply wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of this film, which is by far the most Wes Anderson-y of all Wes Anderson movies. Gird your loins accordingly. I didn’t love it, but I sure did like it.
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