TOM TANGNEY

‘The French Dispatch’ is unmistakably Andersonian

Oct 29, 2021, 1:19 PM

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. But luckily, after 10 full-length movies, most critics and many movie-goers have acquired it, although there are a few adamant hold-outs.

His new film, “The French Dispatch,” is unmistakably Andersonian. Quirky subject matter? Check. Deadpan humor? Check. Meticulous production design? Check. Light-hearted absurdity? Check. Visual and linguistic wit? Check. Excessively referential? Check. Superficially slight with hints of profundity? Check.

Anderson, above all else, is droll and “The French Dispatch” is one of his drollest.

And, OK, he can be pretty esoteric too. His latest is a deep-dive homage to The New Yorker magazine and to France. How’s that for an odd and oddly specific focus? You don’t have to be a connoisseur of the high-brow publication or a devotee of all things French to appreciate this film, but it wouldn’t hurt. Anderson unabashedly admits that many of his characters are composites of actual New Yorker writers.

In Anderson’s imagination, The French Dispatch is a weekly magazine based in France but written for subscribers to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper. Run by a gruff but soft-hearted founder/editor (played by Anderson regular Bill Murray), the magazine has a tight-knit staff of writers, illustrators, editors, and proofreaders who produce original, high-quality writing week in and week out.

The conceit of the film is that it’s structured like a magazine. It starts with an opening scene-setter, a live-action “article” by their Cycling reporter (Owen Wilson) about the goings-on in town (think “Talk of the Town” for all you New Yorker mag fans). This is followed by three rather in-depth “articles” — one about a convicted murderer/abstract painter (Benicio Del Toro) who’s marketed to great renown, another about a student revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) who gets intimately involved with a French Dispatch reporter (Frances McDormand), and finally, a story by their food writer (Jeffrey Wright), who inadvertently gets mixed up in a boy’s kidnapping and attempted rescue. The film/magazine ends with an obituary on the longtime founder who passed away during the piecing together of this final French Dispatch issue. Interspersed among these “articles” are scenes with the founding editor doling out advice and occasional criticism to his reporters.

My favorite line in the movie is also the wisest piece of advice any editor could give a writer: “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” Pure drollery.

Also droll? The town’s name. We first hear it’s “Ennui.” Everyone lives in Ennui. That’s funny. A little later, we find out the town’s full name — “Ennui sur Blasé.”  Not only is that redundancy funny, but if you’ve ever visited France you recognize how many towns are named something sur something. (In this case, Blasé is the name of the river running through town.) Très amusante, if you ask me.

Since the film is honoring a high-quality magazine, it’s fitting that the written word plays a prominent role in “The French Dispatch.” Not only is each new “article” introduced first with a written version of it on screen, but each story is also heavily narrated with voiceovers, so as to further emphasize its WRITTEN aspect. It’s rare for a visual medium like film to so acknowledge the value of the literary. But Anderson is careful not to shirk the film’s visual dimension. In fact, he’s very playful with the medium, juxtaposing color palettes with black-and-white, incorporating long animated sequences, changing aspect-ratios at will, presenting split-screens at times, occasionally freeze-framing group shots, and even scrolling subtitles upwards in the frame.

Curiously missing from this cinematic paean to The New Yorker is the magazine’s most iconic feature: the New Yorker cartoon. But I suspect for Anderson the entire film is his New Yorker cartoon. After all, it’s smart, precise, observant, and wry. Almost like he made it that way on purpose.

Check out more of Tom Tangney’s movie reviews here.

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