At what point does a signature style become a crutch? For devoted followers of filmmaker Wes Anderson, the answer may be "never," as his increasingly fussy, hermetically sealed approach to making movies continues to bring him acclaim and admiration. With The French Dispatch, Anderson hones in even further on minutiae, at the expense of characters and story, until the movie becomes an inert diorama. Anderson creates lovely, often breathtaking displays, but they're completely airless.
Part of the problem is that The French Dispatch is an anthology, and none of the individual segments give Anderson enough room to develop characters with the same detail and depth as his elaborate visual tableaux. The title refers to a venerable New Yorker-esque magazine that is releasing its final issue in 1975 following the death of its founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The movie is divided into three stories presented as articles from the magazine, along with a framing sequence about Howitzer's career and death, plus a short introductory note from writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson).
Sazerac takes the viewer/reader on a tour of the fictional city of Ennui, France, which has a similar relationship to Paris as Gotham City has to New York. It's the same, only more so, a stylized and idealized version of the city as envisioned by someone who might, say, read about it in a highbrow literary magazine. The urban planning seems to consist entirely of Anderson's signature symmetrical designs and clockwork mise en scène, a series of windup toys that he can put into place and then slowly wind down.
Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright play the three journalists behind the main stories, which are presented mostly in black and white (with sometimes jarring transitions to color) and in the boxy Academy ratio. In the first story, Benicio Del Toro plays a convicted murderer who is also a brilliant artist, and whose muse/lover (Léa Seydoux) is a guard at the prison where he's incarcerated. The artist spends years working on his masterpiece, to the consternation but eventual vindication of his wealthy patron (Adrien Brody).
The second story focuses on the student activists who transformed French society in the 1960s, led by the passionate but naive Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who has an affair with McDormand's clearly compromised journalist. In the final story, Wright's food critic witnesses a kidnapping when he's invited to dine with the local police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) just before the man's son is abducted. A madcap chase, depicted partially via animation, ensues.
All three stories come to rather anticlimactic endings, and the middle story is the weakest, lacking even an anticlimax. Anderson fares best when working from influences as fastidious as his own work, from New Yorker illustrations to Jacques Tati films to European comics like The Adventures of Tintin. He's ill-suited to political material, and his approach pales in comparison to the vibrant, daring French New Wave filmmakers who were an essential part of that student movement.
The French Dispatch is more exhausting than entertaining, and the overstuffed cast (including Anderson regulars like Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban and Saoirse Ronan showing up to barely utter a line) has little room to create fully realized characters who exist outside a series of somewhat esoteric references. As is often the case in actual literary nonfiction, the writers stand out more than their subjects.
Anderson films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom can be genuinely emotionally affecting, but The French Dispatch has all the emotional impact of a limited-edition collectible, never to be opened. Like those high-end pieces, it's for fans and completists only. ♦THE FRENCH DISPATCH