It should come as no great surprise that Wes Anderson is a longtime, avid reader of The New Yorker. They share a sensibility, don’t they? Call it an appreciation of the finer things, coupled with a neat and pleasing organizational sense. Anderson, director of live-action movies with the visual imagination of cartoons and cartoons with the soul-deep neurosis of live action, has a style so singular it can be identified from a single frame plucked from the celluloid reels he still shoots on. Yet there is an antecedent for his beloved approach, and one big influence has to be the storied periodical he’s said to have consumed religiously in college, from whose pages he might have drawn a sense of humor at once refined and playful, an affinity for symmetries and pastels, and a voracious appetite for literary pleasures. Were Wes Anderson an airline, The New Yorker would be its in-flight magazine.
The French Dispatch Of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, henceforth referred to by the first three words of its title, is Anderson’s love letter to that 96-year-old highlight of mailboxes and waiting rooms—and by extension, to the nearly century of art, writing, and reporting contained within. The publication has been lightly fictionalized as the overseas satellite outpost of an American newspaper—a staff of correspondents based in the made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Their fearless leader, guiding and “coddling” their peculiarities, is Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a benevolent crank plainly modeled on The New Yorker’s first editor.
The Royal Tenenbaums, still Anderson’s tragicomic masterpiece, presented itself as a novel unfolding chapter by chapter. The French Dispatch likewise adopts the structure of an issue of its eponymous magazine, recounting three nonfiction reports from its final edition. In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” Benicio Del Toro plays an imprisoned artist, enthralled by a guard (Léa Seydoux) he abstractly paints in the nude, whose record proves no impediment to the buying frenzy initiated by his cutthroat dealer (Adrien Brody). “Revisions To A Manifesto” is Anderson’s tribute to the French student protests of May 1968, with Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as idealistic teens who fall in love, even as they drift into different factions of the movement. And “The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner” follows a quirky human interest story about the culinary preoccupations of a law enforcement commander (Mathieu Amalric) as it explodes into a hostage situation.
The anthology format fits Anderson like an Agnelle. Working with a giant ensemble cast of old and new collaborators, he dabbles in puckishly exaggerated art-world satire, pivots to an extended homage to the French New Wave, and finally indulges in one of his signature madcap chases (situated, as is often the case, in the closing stretch). The storytelling is as paramount–and often as dizzyingly entertaining—as the stories themselves. Building on the nesting-doll games of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson cuts back and forth from the tales to their authors recounting them, on stage during a lecture or on a Dick Cavett-like talk show. He nestles frames within frames.
This sophisticated structural gambit centers the perspective of the intrepid reporters, raising questions about how to contain the uncontainable, to condense all the nuances of real life into a digestible form. One might even call it Anderson’s meditation on his own career-long attempts to impose meticulous order on life without totally denying its inherent messiness. Budding journalists were once taught, in an age before narcissistic memoir hijacked the media landscape, that they are not the story. But Anderson reckons in The French Dispatch with how great reporters imprint themselves on their work without explicitly placing themselves within it.
That each of the writers—respectively played by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright—are based on an alum of the New Yorker’s historic contributor pool reflects the sheer, specific depth of Anderson’s homage. (Wright has been cast as the proxy for the most famous of these real-life wordsmiths; his character, amusingly blessed with a “typographic memory,” is a dead ringer for James Baldwin.) To unpack The French Dispatch’s library of touchstones would require multiple viewings and maybe a bibliography; he’s always nodding to a luminary of this field or that, every person on screen a boardwalk caricature of a famous figure. Footnotes would pop with the names of the art dealer Joseph Duveen, the filmmaker Jean Renoir, one-time student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, mononymous French singer Christophe, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, and many more.
At this point in his career, Anderson is operating on a level of dioramic detail, density of set design, and compositional precision that his pretenders and bush-league YouTube parodists could never hope to match. Every shot here is an event, a peerless punchline, a work of art, or all three. In addition to the trifecta of vignettes, the film includes a travelogue segment from the magazine’s “cyclist reporter” (Owen Wilson) that functions as an overview of the magazine’s town of operations, and it’s a miniature masterpiece of montage that clarifies Anderson as a kindred spirit to the late, unrivaled French expert of comic framing, Jacques Tati. More than just a head-spinning joke machine, this cinematic “Goings On About Town” runs all of French culture through an alternate-universe filter, adding a Gallic everyburg to Wes World’s growing atlas of storybook locales. (It’s worth remembering that Anderson now lives in Paris; every new movie from him is a French dispatch of sorts.)
Remarkably, he’s still adding new tricks to his bottomless bag of them, including an intentional alternating between color and black-and-white. Many of his most extravagant flourishes here seem catered to the project’s feature-length expression of New Yorker fandom. Scenes of shaky tableaux, of the cast freezing in place and sometimes visibly struggling to hold their position, parallel seven decades of still photography, while also operating as another sly microcosm of Anderson’s whole modus operandi: the way imperfect humanity crucially creeps into his perfect arrangements. A late animated interlude is created in a style that recalls both French comic books and a history of cartooning on and between the covers of The New Yorker. Subtitles, which eccentrically populate bottom to top, contain parentheticals—a textual salute to the digressive asides instrumental to both a vintage Wes effort and a classic page-turner from the pages of this once-weekly mag. Even the editing feels simpatico with The New Yorker’s famously precise comma usage.
The challenge of the anthology format is to get an audience invested in characters that, by necessity, must be painted in quick brushstrokes. The French Dispatch unfolds at montage speed; there is little room for the full Max Fischer fleshing out that even 90 brisk minutes can facilitate. Yet Anderson generously seasons each story with disarming moments. One sneaks up on you with an unexpected casualty, a bright future cut short. Another slaps a startlingly profound encounter at the end; there’s a delight in the way that even the storyteller isn’t convinced that it belongs, while the editor believes it’s the whole emotional fulcrum of the piece. And while “The Concrete Masterpiece” is arguably the funniest of these self-contained episodes, it also contains one of the most poignant gestures: Budapest star Tony Revolori handing a paintbrush to Del Toro, literally passing the baton of the role from youth to old age, bridging decades of incarceration in one shot.
The key to The French Dispatch’s sneaky resonance, tucked into the spaces between its moving parts, is Anderson’s balancing act of reverence and irreverence. He sees the humor in artistic pretension—in the self-seriousness of tortured artists and rebellious youth. But he also believes in their belief systems, or at least their capacity to believe so passionately in something. If he’s lampooning the subjects of each imaginary profile, it’s a fundamentally affectionate lampooning.
Melancholy has always nipped at the edge of his comedies, thwarting detractors’ attempts to reduce his work to some empty, precious, ever-expanding dollhouse of strictly cosmetic concerns. That we’re seeing the final issue of this titular publication is no accident. It speaks to the inherently eulogistic nature of this film in particular, and of Anderson’s recent work in general. Here, he’s bidding farewell to a bygone era of arts appreciation, and penning a valentine to not just the specific New Yorker contributors that sparked his imagination but also to a profession under recent, persistent attack.
The French Dispatch will, of course, speak to any contemporary cog of that debased system—any writer who’s watched their beats or word counts shrink, or their employers diminish the appeal of subjects more esoteric than the lowest common denominator. But speaking of demographics, the one for this movie goes much deeper than just the press corps laboring to wrap its collective head around a typical litany of visual and conceptual intricacies. It should be noted here that the real Liberty, Kansas, has a population just north of three digits. Relocating a bastion of cosmopolitan sophistication to a speck on the map is a joke with reservoirs of deeper meaning. The New Yorker, as founder Harold Ross once quipped, may not be “edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” But it may speak to her anyway, as an American publication relevant to thinkers and aficionados residing far beyond the metropolis for which it was named. Maybe the same could be said of Anderson’s output.