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Two Cheers for The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch showcases both the director’s remarkable gifts as a stylist and his tendency to reduce history to pure aesthetics.

In an age of assembly-line culture and CGI-induced visual uniformity, Wes Anderson’s nostalgia for earlier eras is both refreshing and praiseworthy. (Searchlight Pictures)

In a recent write-up on the new Marvel flick Eternals, NPR reviewer Glen Weldon looks to find a silver lining in the release of yet another superhero monstrosity. Acknowledging that the whole genre has by this point become a kind of cultural white noise, he nevertheless proceeds to discover a sonorous whisper amid the din — in this case, the artistic imprint of indie director Chloe Zhao, whose influence is “all over Eternals.” Well, not quite. Because, as Weldon himself acknowledges, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) leaden, formulaic aesthetic still dominates the movie so much that flickers of the director’s own style are, at best, a negligible presence: “You’d be forgiven,” he writes, “for assuming that Zhao’s directorial presence would get buried, caught up in the gears of the MCU machine and ground into the same uniformly fine powder that gets baked into every Marvel movie. And it does get ground up, to a certain extent. But not entirely.”

The result, Weldon argues, is a film which “pushes back” against the standard complaints issued by those who “harbor a performative disdain for Marvel’s cinematic output” and, presumably, against those of us who find fault with the exhausting uniformity of the entire superhero genre. With no shade intended toward either Mr Weldon or Eternals’ Chloe Zhao, it’s a sorry statement about the current cultural landscape that the faint presence of an individual director’s style is now such a rare event that it’s one we’re invited to celebrate. The movies, it would seem, have grown so utterly homogenous that even the slightest deviation from the usual assembly-line format is supposed to be transgressive and avant-garde.

It’s in this context that we should situate The French Dispatch (full title: The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun), the new anthology film from Wes Anderson — a director whose style is so distinctive that you invariably recognize it right away. This may be anecdotal, but I suspect my own arc with classic Anderson films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably one at least partly shared by many from my generation. I discovered his movies in my late teens and early twenties and was earnestly transfixed by their ornate beauty and whimsy. With a few years of cinema studies and a lot more films under my belt, I largely consigned them to the realm of undergraduate fancy, holding them to be amusing trifles more than beloved objects.

I’ve found it difficult to sustain this somewhat curmudgeonly view in my thirties, perhaps because mass culture is now so homogeneously schlocky that anything possessed of an individual artist’s point of view does, indeed, feel worth celebrating. The French Dispatch couldn’t have been made by anyone but Wes Anderson. And, like all his films, it is positively brimming with pleasant moments, sardonic irony, and simple charm. If you aren’t among those put off by the filmmaker’s very distinctive schtick, it’s a meticulously stylized banquet of visual delights that you’ll thoroughly enjoy (even if the anthology format leaves it slighter in scope than the epic Grand Budapest Hotel).

By way of summary, The French Dispatch is nominally about an American expat newspaper based in the fictionalized French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (roughly “Boredom-on-the-World-Weary”). The eponymous periodical, however, is more of a loose foil than an actual subject — the majority of the film consisting of three long vignettes (with one shorter one), each dealing with a different story published during the paper’s multidecade history (we learn in its opening frames that the editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr, has passed away and that the staff is planning to publish a retrospective farewell issue at his posthumous request).

In the brief “The Cycling Reporter,” travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) gives a tour of Ennui-sur-Blasé and compares its past and present; in “The Concrete Masterpiece,” disturbed and imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) paints abstract nudes of guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) and, through the effort of an unscrupulous art dealer, becomes an implausible sensation; in “Revisions to a Manifesto,” Lucinda Krementz (Francis McDormand) profiles a group of student radicals headed by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) as they stage a “chessboard revolution,” and briefly becomes sexually involved with him; in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts a frantic and somewhat tangled narrative involving food, police, and a ransom kidnapping.

At film’s end, a postscript from the director himself announces The French Dispatch as a tribute to many of his favorite New Yorker writers, offering a list of names that includes Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, and James Baldwin — whose likenesses and personalities loosely inspire various characters throughout. “We were stealing things very openly,” Anderson cheerfully told the New Yorker in a September interview, “so you really can kind of pinpoint something and find out exactly where it came from.”

The film’s endless use of pastiche is both what lends it its charm and where it ultimately hits a wall. As a stylist, Anderson is incredibly gifted, possessing an effortless command of modernist film techniques and variously evoking French masters like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Tati, and François Truffaut. His nostalgic appreciation for the sights, sounds, and aesthetic stylings of earlier eras also extends to people, places, and objects, many of which are composites drawn from multiple sources. Ennui-sur-Blasé feels at once both a town and a city — not quite Paris but also, as the New York Times’ A. O. Scott puts it, not quite not Paris either. Editor Arthur Howitzer Jr is (according to Anderson himself) a hybrid of actual New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn. Even the film’s structuring device carries much the same ambiguity. The French Dispatch newspaper visually resembles the New Yorker, but is clearly also inspired by expatriate publications like the now defunct International Herald Tribune.

This composite style gives Anderson’s universe a decidedly ethereal historicity — with images, people, and events seeming to exist in multiple periods at once. In The French Dispatch, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel, history itself comes in the form of pastiche, rendered as quasi-ironic echo rather than straightforward retelling. This is most apparent during the “chessboard revolution” sequence, where May ’68 is not quite May ’68 but also not quite not May ’68: whimsical student militants rebel against “a thousand years of Republican authority” while seeking to destroy a “neoliberal imperialist project,” and Timothée Chalamet plays a kind of manic-pixie-dream version of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

It’s all a romping good time, but both people and events are so dehistoricized that the takeaway is most often an amused sense of nostalgia without a creative thesis beyond how things look and feel. Anderson’s project is a highly appreciative one and, for what it’s worth, he clearly intends to pay tribute to his subjects rather than patronize them. The resulting ironic distance, however, sometimes turns these subjects into gossamer, evoking them as detached reference points rather than solid or tangible objects. This is in marked contrast to some of Anderson’s biggest influences, particularly figures of the French new wave like Godard, who believed deeply in the political (and even the revolutionary) potential of cinema and actively sought to conscript it in the service of political ends.

This is not a knock on Anderson or his style per se. The French Dispatch is a hugely entertaining and beautiful film, and I’d happily sit through it a dozen more times before going to see most of the movies that now tend to make it into theaters. In an age of assembly-line culture and CGI-induced visual uniformity, Anderson’s nostalgia for the sights, sounds, and tastes of earlier eras is both refreshing and praiseworthy. It’s also, however, worth being nostalgic for a time before our collective sense of history’s forward momentum had ground to a halt, and the past could be shown to us as something real and tangible rather than as a quasi-ironic object to be rendered in glistening effigy.