It just seemed like the thing to — to do at the time. I don’t really know . . . Well, I have — you know, I have been asked the question before, by — by Bill Murray, who said, ‘Why am I doing — why would I do this?’ Um, and I, ah, I didn’t really have an answer for him. I mean, to me — to — to me it’s, uh — it’s. . . You know, it’s selfish. Um, I guess. Um. But um, you know, it’s just a made-up story.
This is Wes Anderson’s answer when, 26 minutes into an amiable interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, he is asked why his latest film begins with its own ending. The French Dispatch, unconventionally inspired in both form and content by early issues of The New Yorker — hence the inevitable interview between Anderson and the publication — opens with the death of an eminent newspaper editor and, subsequently, the death of his publication as well: as stipulated in his will, the newspaper is to stop its presses before releasing one last issue, the subject matter of which entails the film’s remaining runtime. What follows is a cinematically-rendered omnibus of newspaper articles, all cast in the quintessential pastel tones and dazzling visuals of any Wes Anderson picture.
Anderson’s response to the interview question is intriguing, to say the least. The smoothness of his pleasant accent is suddenly interrupted by a rush of stammered filler words and sentence fragments that offer us only a teasing resolution: the narrative choice was “selfish.” Just as soon as this glib, enigmatic statement promises the reveal of a deeper, unexpected relationship between Anderson and the beginning-end he chose, however, it’s immediately cut short by a throw-away sentiment — “it’s just a made-up story” — that he tacks onto his answer, allowing it to come to a hasty conclusion. As far as answers go, it is strange, nervous, and full of un-communicated promise. Whether the filmmaker was simply unprepared for the question or it truly did strike some hidden nerve, he was clearly thrown by it.
Yet with a work as consistently punctuated by finality as The French Dispatch, I’m surprised the question hasn’t been asked more often and with more vigorous fervor. It is a film depicting a newspaper’s last issue, itself produced upon the death of its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), and containing one preface and three core stories, all preoccupied with questions of legacy and culmination: “The Cycling Reporter” affectionately describes, through the melodic tones of Owen Wilson (familiar to any Wes Anderson-phile), how the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé has changed between past and present; “The Concrete Masterpiece” follows an artist’s mad desire to create one final pièce de résistance; “Revisions to a Manifesto” serves as a love letter to the lasting political power of a youthful reactionary, even past his death; and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” finds its zenith when a renowned chef puts his life at stake for a criminal investigation. The film finds both its narrative push and its emotional pull in these searches for and meditations on legacy, whether they come in the form of Moses Rosenthaler’s (Benicio del Toro’s) desperate search for an artwork that will cement his name in the artistic canon (literally — he embeds his fresco into concrete, creating the titular “masterpiece”) or the famed police chef Nescaffier’s (Andrew Park’s) heart-rending discovery of a never-before-experienced taste. Nearly dead from consuming a dose of poison for a rescue operation, Nescaffier soulfully gazes into the camera, in crisp black-and-white, and whispers, “they had a flavor. . . the toxic salts in the radishes. They had a flavor. Totally unfamiliar to me. Like a . . . bitter, moldy, peppery, spicy, oily kind of . . . earth. I never tasted that taste in my life. Not entirely pleasant, extremely poisonous, but, still, a new flavor. That’s a rare thing in my age.”
In a film where, characteristic to Anderson, most dialogue is served strictly deadpan, few lines are as achingly and hauntingly delivered as these. There are some things that you can only discover towards the end, Nescaffier seems to want to tell us, and only with the lifespan of an entire career and, indeed, an entire life behind him could he gain access to that intriguing, “not entirely pleasant” bite of poison. This notion, of madly searching for greatness in the face of an approaching end, haunts every single metaphorical page of the Dispatch, defining the work as a whole. As Howitzer self-reflexively states, in an epilogue in which he discusses the above quote with the writer, “that’s the reason for it to be written” — a sentiment applicable to both the individual story of “The Private Dining Room” and The French Dispatch as a whole.
The resonances with Anderson’s own illustrious career, which has now spanned nearly three decades, seen the release of ten feature films, and continues to reliably secure screenings in major movie theater chains across the nation, is, at this point, inevitable. Though his diminutive, “doll’s-house” twee style may often undercut the weight of his work in the eyes of critics and audience alike, make no mistake: he is undoubtedly a longstanding giant of the American indie scene. Few directors have enjoyed so wide a recognition with so singular a directorial approach, and the resulting “Wes Anderson style” has been so resolutely branded that even the most rudimentary of his shots are identifiable, on-sight, for the casual filmgoer. His stance in the indie scene is akin to that of Rosenthal, Nescaffier, or even the eminent Howitzer himself, a comparison that even Remnick couldn’t resist offhandedly making in the interview. Their fictional brushes with greatness and mortality, in turn, seem also to be reflected in Anderson’s reality.
In truth, The French Dispatch seems marked by finality not just in its form, but in its place in the auteur’s career as well. Many critics branded it as “the most Wes Anderson film ever,” with that term carrying both admiration and derision in equal measure, depending on whether you find his particular version of “style over substance” delightfully fanciful or tired, unimaginative, and repetitive. Indeed, packed within the film’s story, which is rendered nearly non-narrative by its newspaper format, is a barrage of trademark Anderson flourishes, a cartoonish neatness saturating every single painstakingly constructed prop, pastel suit, painted backdrop, costumed extra, tautly delivered line, flashing subtitle, animated segment, 1960s love song, rapid camera pan, and, indeed, every single frame as a whole, carefully centered and rendered storybook flat. Staggeringly elaborate sets are built and discarded for frivolous, five-second shots and an unbelievably star-studded cast leaves Anderson favorites — like Luke Wilson and Bill Murray — as well as celebrated, 50-dollar names — like Elisabeth Moss, Edward Norton, and Anjelica Huston, to name a few — with a mere fraction of the screen time (if any at all: Huston’s face does not even appear onscreen, with only her voice lent in narration!). Truly, it is a film that is consciously aiming not just for grandeur, but for a specifically “Wes Anderson” version of grandeur, informed by the patterns and tendencies he has painstakingly, exactingly been cultivating for the past 30 years. It is, in short, the kind of film that can sum up an entire career.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that one of the primary, unexpected emotions I felt upon leaving the theater — besides wonder, amazement, contentment, all of the familiar post-Anderson highs — was fear. As a longtime Anderson devotee, these notes of finality were just a tad too poignant for my comfort. It was an anxiety, furthermore, that I could trace back to the work itself as well. Only with a certain anxiety, after all, can so many stylistic tricks be crammed together, back-to-back, in a move reminiscent of the ego death of Said’s “late style”: an explosion packed with “the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.” It is that anxiety, informed as it is by the end of a career, that feeds the film’s narrative structure and has characters gently reminding each other that there is “no crying” in Howitzer’s office. Perhaps it is even that anxiety that spills over into Anderson’s real-life, stuttering answer to the question of finality in his interview.
What other explanation could there be, after all, for Howitzer’s death to be “selfish” — self-centered, self-reflective, self-possessed, perhaps? This film, being the bombastic and overwhelming expression of late style that it is, is too easily read as a swan song. I was so shaken by this possibility, in fact, that the first thing I did when I left the theater was Google Anderson’s name, just to be sure that he wasn’t planning on leaving the filmmaking world forever (quite the opposite, actually — apparently he is already writing his next work). Still, a tiny part of me remains wary, so you heard it here first: if Wes Anderson suddenly decides to leave us all behind, I called it the minute the credits began to roll on The French Dispatch.
Anderson’s career, however, is of course far from over. To see Dispatch as a summation of his career is to only read the headline, repeated so often from critic to critic: actually crack the paper open, and you will find that for all about this seminal work that is tried and true, there is also a startling amount of it that is wholly new. In reality, I take issue with its labeling as “the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson films,” if only because that label overlooks everything about the work that has been hitherto unseen in his filmography. The familiar faces of Wilson and Murray may grace the screen, yes, but they are also accompanied, if not outshined, by complete Anderson first-timers like del Toro, Chalamet, and Wright, all three of whom secure leading roles. In fact, Anderson’s casting has been diversified in more ways than one, bringing an unprecedented amount of representation to his world — the lack of which has been a criticism lobbied at him with increasing frequency in recent years. The unmistakable politics of “Revisions” further promise an acute awareness of this fact, as are the pointed undertones of “The Private Dining Room” which, though it is a police story, devotes considerable attention to its homosexual and immigrant characters. The choice to finally address politics, especially in a manner so open, cannot be anything but a conscious elevation of Anderson’s previous work.
Beyond content, The French Dispatch also experiments considerably with form and expression. Its nonlinear, omnibus structure is beyond admirable; far from being a simple collection of five-act stories, the film instead presents a circular framing structure (“Epilogue”), a non-narrative introduction (“Cycling Reporter”), and three deftly-crafted, ingeniously-presented short stories that utilize their own unique structures (the remaining three sections). Laden with voiceover and direct address, the influence of newspaper reportage is made prominent throughout, producing a unique marriage between the arts of film- and essay-writing. Yet even as far as articles go the structures of the fictional ones created for The French Dispatch are complex, with their author-characters providing plenty of dialogue, ellipses, flashbacks, and asides, both personal and informative. In comparison to any of Anderson’s other works, whether it be the stripped-down plot of something like The Darjeeling Limited or the more causally-driven The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch introduces a radical departure, untethering the auteur from traditional narrative to experiment with radically unconventional, meta-referential storytelling.
As for style, The French Dispatch not only pushes Anderson’s existing style to its limit, it finds him elevating that limit by perfecting wholly novel forms of expression as well. Over the film’s 108-minute runtime, the screen is dazzled with tableaus, slow pans, expressionistic lighting changes, moving set pieces, unusually-placed subtitles, slow motion, split-screens, steadicam shots, and a constant alteration between black-and-white and color — to name just a few techniques that have rarely, if ever, graced his filmography before. Perhaps most fascinating is the filmmaker’s radical embrace of high-key lighting and deep-focus staging, suddenly introducing expansive shadows into a world that was previously rendered so flat, in terms of both lighting and depth-of-field, that it was nearly two-dimensional. The transformation is nothing short of career-defining, producing a look that is clean, bold, and unmistakably, shatteringly refreshed, yet still identifiably “Wes Anderson.”
The French Dispatch is, then, a beyond-fascinating turning point in the career of a cinematic giant, boasting both the pinnacle of his existing technique and the promise of new things to come. As much as it may explode with indulgent and, indeed, selfish late style, it also flaunts an exciting, conscious expansion of Anderson’s horizons. For a filmmaker, especially, who has been labeled by many as a passé auteur whose schtick has long overstayed its welcome, it is the kind of career-defining film that heralds a triumphant expansion upon the old by the new. It is a technical masterpiece of the highest order, containing at its heart one ultimate, scintillating promise: there is still much to discover in Wes Anderson’s world. •