There are no movies like Wes Anderson movies. And you know a Wes Anderson movie the moment you see it. Every frame is meticulously detailed. He builds worlds and cinematic dioramas first, and manifests stories from there. Even his worst outings are technical achievements. And yet, Anderson can be a polarizing filmmaker. There is an Andersonian style and visual language built from bright color and pastel templates, French new wave, British Invasion pop, ’70s folk and rock music, J.D. Salinger novels, and pretty much all European culture. He’s seen as too “twee,” too quirky, and too predictable to many of his detractors.
But the most endearing thing about Wes Anderson is that he’s a hopelessly romantic filmmaker, and these worlds he creates clearly mean a lot to him. His latest film, The French Dispatch, is a love letter certainly—to journalism, to writers, to art in general and filmmaking specifically—and rather than change or adapt in the way some want to see, he gloriously doubles down on his style, making for his most maximalist, hyper-imaginative film yet. For Wes Anderson fans and completists, The French Dispatch captures the director in peak form: inventive, lively, and clashing all numbers of styles, shots, kinetic editing, framing techniques, colors, and narration. You can feel how much fun he’s having making this movie, which is a special occurrence for a 10th outing.
The French Dispatch follows a literary magazine fashioned after The New Yorker. The Dispatch started out life as a travelogue for a fictional Kansas newspaper, and eventually came to find its home base in a fictional 20th-century French town, staffed by a team of American expatriates. The film unfolds like a magazine with a number of different stories, narrated by their authors, all based on the extraordinary happenings around the small town. The Dispatch is headed by gruff, no-nonsense editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), whose death becomes the centerpiece of this issue of the magazine, effectively ending the publication with one last hurrah. The stories featured for this final issue of the Dispatch involve a perfectly whimsical tour about town by travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), a story about an inmate who is also a genius artist by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), a tale about French youths in revolt by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and a bit of a Russian-nesting-doll profile on the police commissioner’s chef by food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).
Each of these stories, while not completely interconnected, all playfully lampoon journalists and their varied subjects, be it art, politics, crime, or food. Much of The French Dispatch is winking at and aware of the cosmopolitan social structure within media, and how the personal lives of various authors may figure into their stories. Of course, in real life being a writer is actually kinda boring and mostly lonely, save for the occasional party or after-hours trip to a bar, but Anderson, like many other aspiring young writers, clearly romanticized the world of Truman Capote galas, Graydon Carter Vanity Fair parties, and the Harlem Renaissance—the idea of the writer as intellectual impresario and tastemaker. The credits for The French Dispatch include a number of famous New Yorker writers that the film feels indebted to, including Joseph Mitchell, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, Lillian Ross, and A.J. Liebling. Anderson has always excelled at playing with archetypal characters, and being in a world of literary figures covering historic and distinctive periods and characters seems to delight him. It’s a thrill to watch as each story gets zanier the further it goes. And the actors seem to be having fun too. Tilda Swinton pushes her extravagant, pretentious art critic to its silliest extreme. Benicio Del Toro plays menace and dry humor almost simultaneously. Timothée Chalamet quietly steals the movie with a Dustin Hoffman–meets–Chevy Chase leading-man zeal. Even Saoirse Ronan, who has only a mere cameo, knocks it out of the park with the little she’s given. The stars came out for Wes Anderson, and they clearly have a great time in his capable hands.
That aspect is the biggest key to the success of the movie, and the past decade of Anderson films: There are many actors who love working with this guy. It’s hard to think of any other director that can get so many marquee names to sign on for even just a couple minutes of screen time; it’s reminiscent of Terrence Malick during the production of The Thin Red Line, and the way much of Hollywood seemed to desperately want to star in one of his films. There are the people who have worked with Anderson since his early films and keeping the relationship strong (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and Jason Schwartzman all appear), actors who are new additions to the team from movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs (Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton), and actors making their first Anderson appearance (Benicio Del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, and Stephen Park).
This is Anderson’s biggest ensemble film, thanks to its episodic nature and its great abundance of topics, styles, and plot lines. Characters come in and out with rapid pace but still leave an impression, and much like putting together a magazine (or even a movie), there’s a feeling of getting the gang together for a group project. This spirit of collaboration and community building underscores why actors love being in Anderson’s movies: He’s the best at designing a tiny universe and building it out like one of Max Fischer’s plays in Rushmore. His movies are incredibly stylish, hip, and fun, and he encourages actors to explore all of the comic possibilities at their disposal. It’s not exactly unique to point out that many movies are really about the process of making films, but in exploring how to put together a magazine, Anderson inevitably gets into the work that goes into his craft and how collaborative and technical it is—as well as how much fun you can have with the right community in place.
Everyone in the movie seems game to get in on the joke, with each of the top-billed actors getting enough space to bring their own screwball energy and a dry wit to each story, and Murray in the center as the film’s sturdy captain, playing off everyone else he shares the screen with. All of the actors add something unique to their performances, but they all ultimately add up to one cohesive force that keeps the film’s energy frenetic—save for Wright and Park, who bring much of the emotional counterweight and heart to the film.
While it’s getting harder to make even a medium-budget mainstream motion picture unless it’s a comic book adaptation or based on big IP, Wes Anderson is more or less creating his own cinematic universe, based more on vibes, elaborate production, and a rotating troupe of popular actors. Even the way certain shots are framed and stages are designed evoke a big, glorious Broadway show. It’s all very hypnotic and exciting to sit through, and yet unlike Anderson contemporaries Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson can be a lot harder to get your arms around fully.
People tend to be hard on Wes Anderson and his movies. The tweeness can certainly be a lot, and even fans would admit his style and the particulars of his visual presentation matter significantly and perhaps more than the story. But perhaps the biggest critique about Anderson is the almost unbearable whiteness of his films. The issue isn’t so much that his movies are filled primarily with white actors (though that critique has been somewhat unfairly leveled at him as well) as that his movies tend to luxuriate in a very posh, upper-class prep school vision of the world—a world full of classic etiquettes and delicacies and fanciful presentation with modern white literary references and gentrified rock ‘n’ roll from across the globe. Despite being born and raised in Houston, Texas, he’s always taken a more European approach to filmmaking, which only adds to this narrow and white sensibility. But this argument misses what’s often the point of his stories—and what can make them so effective.
Wes Anderson movies, from the very beginning with Bottle Rocket, have always unearthed deep melancholy, incredible silliness, and every other crack in the facade of upper-crust white society. From prep school to elite families to rich artists and luxury hotels during wartime, there’s always rot and sadness bursting through the seams and threatening to rip apart all these lush exteriors, prim and proper agents, and fussy, genteel customs that people use to signal things about themselves. This isn’t to say anything like actually, Wes Anderson is anti-capitalist, as much as it’s meant to say that these things can also be critiques about whiteness—sometimes in ways Anderson himself probably doesn’t realize. For instance, in The French Dispatch, the “Concrete Masterpiece” story—which features Benicio Del Toro as incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler, who is commissioned to make a piece for very rich, extravagant art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) and finds inspiration from his guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux)—plays with racial politics and questions of power without drawing attention to the fact that it’s hard to even keep it all in check. This isn’t to take Anderson off the hook or argue that he completely understands race—there have been plenty of myopic missteps—but he is getting at something more than people might give him credit for.
Much of the subtext happening in the film revolves around death and legacy: both the death of industries and art but also the death of people. The French Dispatch, much like The Grand Budapest Hotel, centers around the death of an important figure to the narrative, and much of the movie seems to contemplate the stories we tell and whether they actually carry on or mean anything after we tell them. The French Dispatch is unabashedly earnest in its love for journalism and storytelling, and the film aches with sincere affection and romantic nostalgia for writers and the subjects they cover. There’s also a lot of melancholy about the demise of a certain kind of journalism, which also stands in as a demise for a certain kind of artistry and filmmaking. The French Dispatch is a movie that is looking backward with wistfulness and wondering if it was all worth it in the end. The madcap comedic spirit of the film echoes a much different era of studio filmmaking that was more about irresistible stars and theatricality, and is incredibly out of step with what major studios make now. It all serves to dramatize the end of a certain way of making things; the end of a traditional, communal form as we head toward an automated future.
Death is the ultimate looming specter in so many of Anderson’s movies. It’s the most real and final occurrence that can shatter any illusion that we can invent to distract ourselves. The passing of time and the inevitability of an endpoint hangs over the various characters in The French Dispatch, and they either leave behind rich legacies to remember or a mythos that can be exploited with good or bad intent. Neither avenue is presented as an ideal or travesty so much as it’s just the way life can go. The one thing that isn’t made clear is what the legacy of the French Dispatch magazine will be. All that’s known for sure is that it was the hobbyhorse for Arthur Howitzer Jr., who seemed desperate to champion great writers and people without a country to return to for any number of reasons. They all came together to make the best thing they possibly could. Since they can’t live forever, maybe The French Dispatch will do it for them.
Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.