There’s a section of Wes Anderson’s new film that I enjoyed more than any Anderson movie on the whole in many years. It’s an eccentric story-within-the-story called “The Concrete Masterpiece,” filmed in black-and-white, and narrated in a vivid color frame by J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), supposedly an homage to famed art critic Rosamond Bernier. She’s speaking to a rapt audience lapping up her high-culture tales of the low-down arts. Her story is about psychopath Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), doing life in prison for two gory homicides, who suddenly finds himself the wunderkind painter of the modern art world. The credit for the segment’s effervescence mainly goes to Del Toro as the outsider artist, with an honorable mention to his costar Lea Seydoux (No Time to Die) as his jailer, lover, and model.
Del Toro pulls it all off somehow — the comically savage growls, the staring eyes in the ravaged, bearded face, the monologue (there’s always a monologue). In this one, when told he must make a mandatory statement for the prison’s arts and crafts course, he tells a long, increasingly bleak tale of his incarceration, despair, and probable suicide, ending with, “And that’s why I signed up for clay pottery and weaving.”
He does it impeccably.
In Anderson films, there’s always an actor or two who stands out for the way they manage to attune themselves to the airless artifice set up by this maniacally fussy auteur, and yet retain some impression of messy humanity. And when it happens, it’s a delight for the audience — as if the actor had pulled off a magic trick. Del Toro is one of these.
Owen Wilson pulled it off first in Bottle Rocket, followed by Bill Murray in Rushmore. Jason Schwartzman’s whole career, curse it, can be blamed on his ability to act in accordance with the snooty and mannered Anderson universe, holding amusingly impassive poses, rattling off paragraphs of absurdly erudite, tongue-twisting dialogue. And it’s presumably for this career-making reason that noted actors hurl themselves eagerly into absurdly uptight Anderson films, glad to take bit parts if necessary. In The French Dispatch, it’s, “Oh look, there’s Christoph Waltz for a hot minute, and there’s Elisabeth Moss, and there’s Willem Dafoe, and there’s Henry Winkler, and there’s Liev Schreiber, and there’s Edward Norton, and there’s Saoirse Ronan . . .”
It’s awkward, but this puts Anderson in a position similar to the one that pre-scandal Woody Allen once held in the 1980s and ’90s, in the days of Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Famous actors used to crawl over broken glass to get into his films, too — even in tiny parts. There was a similar high-culture credibility to be gained by the association as well — all that erudition and intellectual snob appeal in Allen’s auteurist films, the strictly top-quality craftsmanship, the inevitable nominations and awards that followed.
But would even Woody Allen, at his most high-culture, art cinema–aspiring, Manhattan-worshipping moment of WASP-obsessed snob madness, have constructed an entire film in tribute to the New Yorker?
And yet that’s what Wes Anderson has done. That creaky old warhorse of a mag, plodding along under the burden of its tremendous reputation earned back in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, has obsessed Anderson since his teenage years in Texas. It seems he’s collected nearly every issue ever published. The font used in The French Dispatch is the New Yorker’s font, the twee doodle-like drawings look like New Yorker doodles, and as already indicated, a number of the main characters are drawn from key figures from the illustrious past of the New Yorker. Bill Murray, for example, plays French Dispatch editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr, based on New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross.
The film is arranged as a series of “stories,” first demonstrated on the page, then narrated in various circumstances. There are shorter ones and longer ones, more or less sprightly ones, melancholy ones, comically violent ones. Technically, there are only four, but it seems like ten or so, because of all the various persnickety framing narratives and also because of the implacable Andersonian formalism that locks them all into the same tone.
This becomes most noticeable with the worst of the bunch, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” by Lucinda Krementz, representing New Yorker writer Mavis Gallant and played by Frances McDormand. It’s sending up the May of 1968 student protests in France, covered by Gallant, that ultimately ignited an all-out labor rebellion, a general strike, and a breakdown of the economy that nearly toppled the government of president Charles de Gaulle, who fled the country at one point. But you’d never know it here.
In the script written by Anderson and his frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman, the students’ slogan is, “The children are grumpy.”
One of the addled student leaders, Zefferelli (played by the omnipresent Timothée Chalamet) is perpetually wrangling with a young woman protester who’s supposedly a far more politically radical figure than he is. They’re ultimately admonished by the starchy Miss Krementz to “Go, make love,” and the young naïfs fly off on their motorbike to deal with the really important issue of fundamental human connection that apparently will take care of all political striving as well.
It’s so insufferable, it casts a pall on the better parts of the last story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” particularly the excellent performance by Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, a fictionalized version of James Baldwin. (Jeffrey Wright has noted that writers A.J. Liebling and Tennessee Williams are also sources for the character.) Like Benicio Del Toro, Wright really nails his monologue, which in his case is a poignant revelation of why he’s dedicated himself to writing about food, concluding that as a black, gay expatriate who, he states, “chose this life,” he’s found a kind of companionship in the French dining experience, with a table always set for him somewhere.
Wright manages to convey the impossibly mellifluous and articulate oratory that was once commonly heard on American television talk shows. And to be charitable, it’s clear this bygone world of immersive language haunts Anderson, who is forever trying to preserve aspects of the culture that were already evaporating when he was a child. Hence the nostalgic storybook presentation, over and over again, that could start, “Once upon a time, when people with high-culture credentials, or at least aspirations to high-culture credentials, wrote and spoke in correctly punctuated paragraphs . . .”
So, it’s not as if there’s absolutely no reason to see the film, which gleams like any finicking, high-quality, obsessively polished craftwork, and even has glimmers of real insight and humor and affection here and there. But as always, you have to fight your way through the suffocatingly arch-Andersonian sensibility to get to them. Guess what Anderson the ardent Francophile names the make-believe French city where the French Dispatch, a Kansas-based publication, is generated? Ennui-sur-Blasé. Do you find that charmingly fresh and funny? Then this is the film for you.
Though I admit it’s hardly worth recommending, or not recommending, Wes Anderson films anymore. He’s such a distinctive and well-known quantity, for good or ill, people who bother to read film reviews have either already decided to see his latest effort or else they know they wouldn’t be caught dead seeing it. And that’s a matter to be worked out between you and le bon Dieu.