It is possible, after all, to be too pert. Wes Anderson’s best films, from The Royal Tenenbaums to The Grand Budapest Hotel, have an undercurrent of deep feeling, a tugging human story at work beneath their drollery and exquisite artifice. The French Dispatch, his most consummately stylised work yet, does not.
Anderson has often started his films with an imaginary book, launching a world from a text. The French Dispatch, though, faithfully transfers a whole issue of an invented magazine, its contents an obituary, a travel guide and three feature articles. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is the dreamy creation of its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray). Produced from the French provincial city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (Angoulême in real life), it’s a romanticisation of the New Yorker in its heyday, the film being dedicated to the publication’s greatest writers and editors. But those days are already past. As the movie opens, Arthur has been found dead in his office, leaving instructions that the magazine is to be dismantled after his death. So we are invited to feel a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia for what we are about to see: the final, ideal issue.
First up there’s a portrait of Ennui-sur-Blasé itself by the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Anderson stalwart Owen Wilson) – a prize anthology of gamey French curios, from pickpockets to pissoirs, that also serves as a homage to Jacques Tati.
Then comes an art story, “The Concrete Masterpiece” by the critic JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton), delivered as a lecture. Homicidal maniac Moses Rosenthaler (bearded, growling Benicio del Toro), serving 50 years in the local prison for sawing off the heads of two men, is discovered to be a genius artist by art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), himself serving time for tax evasion. The dealer parlays a single picture into a huge art-market boom, while Moses paints his prison muse, guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), who obligingly poses for him in the nude. But the unveiling of his prison masterpiece goes badly wrong.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” is a burlesque take on France’s period of civil unrest during May 1968. Solitary writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), modelled on Mavis Gallant, embeds herself with the revolting students. She seduces their pretty, naive leader Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), not only reporting on him and his friends but officiously revising his manifesto while actually between the sheets, to the annoyance of his would-be girlfriend Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Anderson fondly pastiches Godard and Truffaut and the pop songs of the period – but this is a pretty twee revolution. Its slogan? “Les enfants sont grognons” (“The kids are grumpy”).
Lastly, there’s an intricately framed yarn, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”. Writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin lookalike with perfect recall of every word of every article he has ever published, relates the time a planned foodie piece changed into a wild adventure when the son of the gastronome Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) was kidnapped by a gang led by “The Chauffeur” (Edward Norton) and only saved by a self-sacrificing intervention, with a poisoned radish pie, by the legendary chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park).
Wes Anderson’s love of making everything look like a puppet show, a stage set, a scale model, a clockwork treat, a diorama, a cabinet of highly curated curiosities, has completely run away with him this time and, partly because it has this episodic structure, there’s no emotional depth at all. Though it is incredibly intricate, inventive, and impossibly accomplished – constantly a treat for the eye with its switches of style, knowing allusions, perfect symmetries and rectilinear compositions, with a stellar cast cropping up in tiny cameos, and another parping score from Alexandre Desplat – it even becomes, sorry to say, a bit boring.
All the actors speak and move in that highly stylised, detached deadpan way Anderson specifies (only Frances McDormand seems to have any interiority) and there is no invitation to care for any of them. In his earlier films, there’s always been a sense of pain, a fear of the broken, under the capering (brilliantly identified by the author Michael Chabon as “the yearning for childhood’s lost perfect world”). Not here.
Arthur Howitzer’s two precepts as an editor are “Just try to make it sound as though you wrote it that way on purpose” and “No crying”. The French Dispatch, overdetermined and unaffecting, observes them sedulously.
“The French Dispatch” is in cinemas from 22 October
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West