It’s strange, in a way, to call any of Wes Anderson’s movies personal. By now you probably know the litany of complaints often lodged against the director’s style, many of which are the same things his fans would consider merits. His films are overtly stagy, with actors delivering their dialogue in a flat, affectless manner, often directly to the camera, from sets that resemble meticulously arranged dioramas. Whimsical yet melancholy, his movies are sentimental in a way that’s often dismissed as “twee.” They’re also slightly pretentious, adhering to a mid-century aesthetic that pretends like the world never progressed past the eighties. These are all deliberate choices that seem designed to create distance, not invite people in. And they’re why Anderson’s films leave many viewers cold.
The French Dispatch, opening October 22 in theaters, isn’t likely to sway those detractors. Superficially, Anderson’s latest edges toward self-parody at times, like one of those scripts written by an artificial intelligence bot that’s just been force-fed his entire filmography. It all revolves around the New Yorker–esque magazine of the title and its staff of tweedy American transplants, who for half a century have chronicled life inside the drolly named French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film opens in 1975 with the sudden loss of The French Dispatch’s editor, founder, and father figure, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). Howitzer’s death doesn’t just spell the end of his beloved, if decidedly niche, periodical. It also marks the end of a golden era—one that, not so coincidentally, dovetails neatly with familiar Anderson obsessions such as literary celebrities, French New Wave films, and clacking typewriters. (Unfortunately, the Kinks never wrote a French song, so they’ll have to sit this one out.)
As the Dispatch staff gather to write an obituary for their fallen leader, the film revisits articles from the publication’s heyday, told in four discrete chapters. In the first, a beret-wearing Owen Wilson takes us on a bicycle tour of the town, pointing out the corners of ill repute that are now popular nightclubs, and dryly noting the dead bodies that are fished out of the river each year. In the second, a swanning Tilda Swinton, assisted by her veneers, introduces a painter (Benicio Del Toro) who’s also a homicidal maniac, a tormented genius who becomes the toast of the art world thanks to his prison-guard muse (Léa Seydoux), an incarcerated art dealer (Adrien Brody), and Swinton’s lamprey art critic. The third chapter brings in Frances McDormand as a hard-bitten investigative journalist who becomes entangled with a student revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) during the 1968 riots. And in the final segment, Jeffrey Wright does his best James Baldwin homage while portraying a poetic food critic who recounts the time he set out to profile a policeman’s private chef, only to become caught up in a wacky kidnapping caper.
The film’s anthology structure is meant to evoke leafing through a magazine (although its episodic nature also suggests the unholy commingling of a Wes Anderson TV series). It also seems intended to foster at least a few added layers of ironic detachment. Here we’re watching writers reminisce about stories they’ve written about other people’s adventures, some of them holding forth in front of audiences, reducing these tales of love, death, and war into charming cocktail party chatter. And before we can dwell for too long on any of these subjects, Anderson briskly turns the page again. His signature theatricality is even more exaggerated than usual, too, with his pastel, curio-stuffed sets often wheeling in and out of the frame like stage flats. There’s also a long animated sequence, and at one point we watch as a writer’s story abruptly switches over to the theatrical adaptation it inspired, with the actors assuming their roles while standing on a proscenium that’s lined with footlights.
It’s all very artificial, in other words, and often self-consciously so. Yet for all its layers of remove, The French Dispatch also feels like the director’s most personal film since Rushmore—a movie that is intimately connected to who Wes Anderson is and why he does what he does, reveling in his fixations in a way that verges on the autobiographical. Rushmore’s Max Fischer was an obvious alter ego for Anderson: an espresso-sipping Houston prep school kid who longs for the rapidly disappearing past, and who escapes his dreary surroundings by staging elaborate plays. And as it does in many of Anderson’s movies, Max’s lament, “Sic transit gloria” (“Glory fades”), hovers over The French Dispatch’s elegy for a more refined age, while the film itself, with its gee-whiz physical sets, resembles the most ambitious production never staged by the Max Fischer Players. It’s a self-proclaimed “love letter to journalists” that lionizes all manner of storytellers—Anderson very much included.
If there is a clear stand-in for Anderson here—or at least, a projection of his ego—it is Murray’s character, an editor who prizes authorial voice above all else, even when it ends up overwhelming the piece. Howitzer spoils his writers, allowing them to work on their stories indefinitely (or not at all) while he foots their massive expense bills and orders underlings to leave them alone. Whenever their word counts run wild, Howitzer simply scraps the masthead and orders more paper; his only true editorial maxim is “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” After Wright’s character produces another section for his already overlong article, a florid tangent he cuts because he feels it is “too sad,” Howitzer insists he put it back in. “That’s the best part,” he says. “It’s the whole reason for writing it.”
Again, if you’re not already a subscriber, you’re likely to disagree with the sentiment. Even broken up into segments, The French Dispatch feels a tad drawn out and indulgent, in love with its own language. Despite some typically strong performances, from Wright and Swinton in particular, much of Anderson’s sprawling, all-star ensemble is left with little to do, with actors Elisabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, and Willem Dafoe stranded in glorified cameos. And while the film grapples with some heady topics—racism, homophobia, mental illness, political unrest—it does so with a uniformly light touch. Everything else is secondary to the auteurist flair and visual curlicues.
But like Howitzer, Anderson would argue that that’s the whole point: the way a story is told, and who’s doing the telling, matters more than the story itself. Here Anderson gives himself over fully to his own stylistic fancies, broadening his usual palette with split screens and black and white sequences, futzing with the subtitles in a way that renders frames into postcards, and, in his most eye-popping new trick, freezing actors and tumbling props mid-action, in a sort of living tableau. The French Dispatch is also, I believe, the first Wes Anderson movie to boast full-frontal nudity. It’s a lot, in other words, and it’s all underscored by a quietly pessimistic fear of the future, where art is increasingly dictated by commerce, idiosyncratic voices are silenced, and all the best parts get cut out. For a filmmaker like Anderson—as for anyone who values unique storytelling—that feels very personal indeed.