After 25 years and nine films, we know what to expect from a Wes Anderson movie. It is the cinematic equivalent of that stand at the county fair selling handcrafted elf figurines. It’s not going to blow you away with technology or special effects or even any sweeping dramatic gestures, but you can’t help but marvel at the exquisiteness of the craftsmanship and the obvious care that has gone into every element of the production, all the while feeling an odd mixture of admiration, melancholy, and whimsy over the fact that so much love has been devoted to something so seemingly meaningless and ultimately inconsequential.
And yet, that painstaking attention to creating a small work of beauty may be precisely what is necessary to endow it with the ineffable but indispensable quality we call “meaning.”
The frank existentialism that has been at the heart of Wes Anderson’s cinematic project since The Royal Tenenbaums has never been more evident than in Anderson’s latest feature, The French Dispatch. Fittingly set in France, the country that had the greatest hand in the birth of existentialism not only as a philosophical movement but as a genuine way of being, the film comprises a series of vignettes related to a fictional 20th-century publication known as The French Dispatch, a New Yorker-type of magazine published as the Sunday supplement of a fictional Kansas newspaper called the Kansas Evening Sun. This eclectic supplement, which covers art, politics, and food, among other topics, was brought to France from Liberty, Kansas, by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), where it is headquartered in the felicitously named fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, which roughly translates to “World-Weariness on the So What?” Howitzer assembled a Marvel’s superhero-level squad of journalists and persuaded all of them to make “the long journey from Liberty to Ennui” and come with him to France to work on his pet prestige project.
The film shows us what life was like working for the Dispatch in Ennui through a series of episodes, beginning with the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), oddly cheerful for living in a town called Ennui, giving us a tour through the stereotypically quaint and picturesque French town situated on the banks of the Blasé River. “Like every living city,” Sazerac tells us in his humorously nonplussed manner, “Ennui supports a menagerie of vermin and scavengers.” He files his copy to the mild-mannered Howitzer, who’d prefer that Sazerac add more flowers and fewer streetwalkers to his story, but no matter — the stories must be printed. The Dispatch’s show must go on.
Not all of the episodes in The French Dispatch are attention-grabbers. A few, like the vignette about a 1968-style student rebellion featuring Timothee Chalamet as a student attempting to write a manifesto and Frances McDormand as a reporter who offers him her assistance while also trying to maintain “journalistic neutrality,” are as tired and dispassionate as the name of the city itself. Similarly wearisome is the film’s final segment, a cooks-and-cops caper, which is enlivened momentarily only by the sound of Jeffrey Wright’s magnificent voice and by one of the best character entrance lines I can ever remember in a movie, uttered by yet another Anderson ensemble regular, Willem Dafoe: “How are you planning to kill me?”
At times, the film feels like it should be titled Scenes From France: Exercises in Style, less a single movie with one unified plot and more a series of disconnected stories designed as opportunities for Anderson to experiment with different visual aesthetics — animation, split-screens, stop-motion, black and white. It is also an occasion for Anderson to parody France and French culture (a strike at the morgue? Seulement en France) as well as to pay homage to a time when intrepid journalists often had to put their lives on the line for their craft. The impressive list of writers and editors the film is dedicated to — Wallace Shawn, James Baldwin, James Thurber, and E. B. White, among others — allows Anderson and the film’s other writers (Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) to express their nostalgia for a time before likes and retweets were the measure of a story’s impact.
Yet an exercise in nostalgia, even a stylish one, does not a good movie make. The French Dispatch has several ideas in it for several films, but not quite one whole good film. What redeems it, however, and what would have made one whole good film had the chapter been developed into an entire film, is the middle episode about the imprisoned painter Moses Rosenthaler. Told to us by a Kansas art museum lecturer named J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, disguised by her American accent as well as by what appear to be a set of false teeth), Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) was “certainly the loudest artist voice of his rowdy generation.” The son of a well-off Mexican-Jewish horse-rancher, he exchanged a prosperous upbringing for squalor, hardship, criminality, and art. He is a brilliant painter and is also serving a 50-year sentence in a French prison for double homicide. (Cue the Caravaggio comparisons.) The art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) has discovered him and wants to buy one of his works. Rosenthaler says he’d sell it for 50-75 cigarettes; Cadazio says he’d buy it for 250,000 francs.
While Cadazio falls in love with Rosenthaler’s art, Rosenthaler’s prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) falls in love with him, becoming his model, muse, and supplier of (probably contraband) paints, brushes, and canvases. Their affair is as French as could be. “I don’t love you,” Simone declares to him after a lovemaking session, to which Rosenthaler retorts: “Already?” Simone, though, does love Rosenthaler’s art, and when Rosenthaler becomes suicidal because he has run out of ideas of what to paint, Simone saves him from himself and simultaneously saves his art for (fictional) posterity. Rosenthaler never decisively emerges from his malaise, but with a new purpose — an ambitious series of paintings he has agreed to deliver to Cadazio — he has found his salvation through his art, and with it a meaning for what had been for him an otherwise drab, meaningless existence. Rosenthaler may never be allowed to leave prison — Cadazio comically (and unintentionally) assures him of that — but in the end, we must imagine Moses Rosenthaler happy.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Salzburg and the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.