by Raghav Raj
art by Olive
[originally published November 2021]
Oftentimes—at least within peculiar circles of those who write about film—there’s this sort of language that seems to follow Wes Anderson wherever he goes, a shroud of mealy-mouthed adjectives that coalesce around criticisms of him like a swarm of Hitchcockian birds. Among these: the cloyingly saccharine “twee,” a term that’s often caught in conversations with “quaint,” “precious,” and the dreaded “cutesy”; the subtly dismissive “eccentric” or “idiosyncratic,” wielded alongside far less subtle terms like “suffocating,” “distracted,” and “unbearable”; the ambiguous tonal indicators, like “dry,” “arch,” or god forbid, “polished.”
Now, it’s not to say that all these adjectives are pointless—I might use a few of them myself later on in this piece—just that they all seem to have Anderson’s unique, wildy distinct style pinned down in a few neat sets of words. The endless discourse around Anderson and his films, for better or worse, seems content with this language, ping-ponging back and forth with meaningless conversations between these adjectives. He has been effectively placed within this neat rhetorical box, under this all-too-common assumption that nothing the man does could really challenge us.
Of course, all this talk about the “language” of a Wes Anderson film is overwrought. In the most inelegant of terms, the most powerful thing about a Wes Anderson film isn’t how elegantly it speaks. The most powerful thing about a Wes Anderson film is how it breaks your fucking heart. Whether it’s a soft, subdued sadness or a quick kick to the stomach, the draw with Anderson is that his work is bittersweet, that it’s filled with this intense longing, this piercing wistfulness, that makes its way through every perfectly manicured scene.
At least in The French Dispatch, his latest and maybe most intricately engineered work, this wistfulness never leaves the back of your head. The conceit here—a farewell issue of a travelogue literary journal settled in the imaginary French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, consisting of three republished articles from past editions and an obituary—is one wholly animated by grief, brought on by the death of the paper’s founder.
This founder — Arthur Horowitz Jr — is, of course, played by Bill Murray, and just like in every other Anderson feature Murray has graced with his presence, the man absolutely brings his best. And, though his presence is mostly a footnote or endnote between the film's episodic stories, he unifies the film, piecing together its fragments with his curt yet sympathetic mannerisms. He is the film’s spiritual glue and his presence gives Anderson the ability to expand on his greatest strengths, to keep those moments of heartbreak so potent even in the most kaleidoscopic stylistic sprawl he’s attempted.
And make no mistake: without a shadow of a doubt, The French Dispatch is the boldest that Anderson has gone. The sheer scope of every single sketch or story that Anderson lays out is staggering. The set pieces are his most intricate, dwarfing even The Grand Budapest Hotel with its titanic works of art and miniature revolutions alike. The colors are bombastic, oscillating between black-and-white and painterly technicolor, allowing a narrative and aesthetic rhythm that makes every jump feel profoundly purposeful. The mediums of the film themselves are malleable, shifting into excerpts of theatrical rendition and vibrant animation with the sort of confidence you’d expect from someone like Tati in his Playtime period, the sort of period where every artistic instinct is indulged with the delicate craftsmanship of only a true auteur.
With a lesser director, I’d be tempted to whip out the adjectives, to call this sort of maximalist filmmaking “self-indulgent,” “gaudy,” or “chintzy.” But while negotiating with those terms for the entirety of his career, what Anderson has managed to do is make this maximalism feel so profoundly purposeful, so necessary to tell these stories that he argues deserve to be told. The French Dispatch is undoubtedly a reflection of Anderson’s love for The New Yorker, and the way that publication reflects Anderson’s unmistakable storytelling instincts is a sign of the influences he wears on his sleeves coming full circle with this film.
With all this in mind, it’s not much of a surprise that The French Dispatch comes off like a magnum opus as it makes its way through every sublime moment. The film is Anderson’s utterly unrelenting vision fully, finally realized, a homecoming and a victory lap that gathers all the heavy hitters and knocks it out of the park.
By the heavy hitters, of course I mean the cast here, which is potent both in its sheer star power and the utter lack of ego. This is an ensemble film through and through, filled with Anderson mainstays (a shortlist of which includes aforementioned Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, and Willem Dafoe), critical darlings (Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Christoph Waltz in an amusingly minuscule bit part), and promising starlets (Saoirse Ronan, Alex Lawther, the endlessly polarizing Timothée Chalamet) alike. And though the performances here are mostly moving as parts to the whole, like intricate little gears in an old, ornate watch, it doesn’t stop Anderson from every-so-often placing the spotlight on some of the utterly striking performances he’s able to draw out.
There is no singularly flawed, fascinatingly complex Andersonian hero here, no analogue to Schwartzman in Rushmore, Murray in The Life Aquatic, or Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Still, the sheer strength of performances in The French Dispatch is something astounding, an achievement that sees Anderson drawing out highlights from the likes of Léa Seydoux and the aforementioned Timothée Chalamet (the former in a physically demanding, utterly fascinating role as prison guard and muse; the latter in the best role of his career, a youthful, plucky, tragic revolutionary with a flair for the poetic).
Then, of course, there’s Jeffrey Wright, delivering a performance as a James Baldwin-esque food writer that’s maybe as brilliant a performance I’ve ever seen in a Wes Anderson film. As Roebuck Wright, he’s simply, unrelentingly magnificent; it’s a performance that’s so wry and succinct and so absolutely devastating, especially in those moments where the artifice vanishes and we are faced with a man who writes for his soul, a man who picks up a typewriter and sits down at a dining table because it’s the only way to really fend off the loneliness of his life. The revelation of his story—which entails attending a dinner with The Commissaire of Ennui’s police force, prepared by legendary police officer/chef Lt. Nescaffier, turned on its head amidst a kidnapping plot of the Commissaire’s precocious son—is an absolutely moving one, the sort of conclusion that moves you to tears in the theater.
In The French Dispatch, there’s a delectable irony in the sheer catharsis of a good cry. Almost immediately in the film, we are made aware of Arthur Horowitzer Jr.’s most resonant maxim, the one that adorns the door of his office, the epitaph he has etched onto his gravestone: “No Crying.”
Yet, for the rest of the film, Anderson seems to test our commitment to the phrase, eagerly tugging the heartstrings in ways that only he could ever do, guiding us through a reunion of old friends, the fizzling of a youthful spark, a quiet acknowledgement of a shared humanity in a foreign town, all in the wake of a loss that spells the end of an era. We embody these stories in all their idiosyncratic, humanistic excesses, and we’re effectively able to live within them as we watch the film, even as the stories themselves remain at arm’s length. Despite being his most detached work, The French Dispatch is also Anderson’s closest and most deeply affecting—a triumph that truly warrants the shedding of a celebratory tear or two. Newsroom rules be damned.