The simplest and most accurate thing one can say about The French Dispatch is that it’s a Wes Anderson film. Those three words tell you more about whether the movie is going to be your cup of tea than the next few hundred to follow. Nonetheless, even a fan of Anderson’s distinctive work might have cause to worry that the director is flirting with the possibility of becoming a victim of his own success.
First, though, it’s important to outline the ways in which The French Dispatch differs from movies such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums. Most notably, it’s an anthology, composed of stories ostensibly written for an American magazine published in France called “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.” The framing device is that the publication’s longtime editor, played by Bill Murray, has died, and the staff has gathered to write his obituary. This leads into their recollections of four memorable pieces and the writers who wrote them.
Anderson’s movies often serve as appreciations of his favorite authors, be they J.D. Salinger, Roald Dahl, or Stephan Zweig. Here he offers a loving tribute to journalism in general, The New Yorker magazine in specific, and to French cinema. (Anderson has resided in France for many years.) Owen Wilson plays a bicycling reporter who chronicles the demimonde of the city where the magazine is published, amusingly named Ennui-sur Blasé. Tilda Swinton’s art-world journalist covers the story of a criminally insane painter (Benicio Del Toro), his prison guard and artistic muse (Léa Seydoux), and his rapacious agent (Adrien Brody). Frances McDormand finds herself torn between journalistic ethics and her heart while covering a May ’68-style student revolt led by Timothée Chalamet. And, finally, an expatriate American writer (Jeffrey Wright), assigned to do a profile of a famous chef, finds himself caught in the middle of a harrowing kidnapping plot. (New Yorker aficionados, as well as anyone who reads the film’s production notes, may identify the particular scribes referenced, but it’s certainly not necessary to do so.)
All these tales transpire over a two-hour running time, and most of them involve stories within stories, flashbacks, digressions, and/or animated interludes. In other words, The French Dispatch is never boring. It can, however, despite the rapid-fire dialogue, quick cuts, endlessly inventive sets, and so forth, feel oddly repetitive, especially to someone who’s seen all of Anderson’s previous films, which have progressed from his relatively shambolic debut, Bottle Rocket, to increasingly intricate exercises where every pixel feels precisely placed.
Rushmore, Anderson’s second (and still best) film, centers on Max Fischer, a precocious teenager known for staging absurdly elaborate adaptations of epic films as school plays. It’s even more self-referential now than when it was made, as Anderson continues to lean into the archetype of a genius-cum-control freak who finds himself with enough resources to command, as Orson Welles put it, “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” The relentlessly two-dimensional camera movements and the specifically modulated performances he draws from his casts are both indications that, even twenty years later, each Anderson movie is a Max Fischer Production.
The use of “boy” in that Welles quote is apropos, as well, of Anderson’s increasingly hermetic approach. Regardless of the complexity or maturity of his subject matter, he sees most things through an adolescent lens. This is part of the charm of his films, of course, but it can feel awkward when he’s depicting the 1968 student revolts as a quirky battle over access to girls’ dormitories. Anderson has never been a sensuous filmmaker (the presence of full frontal nudity when Seydoux poses for Del Toro’s painter is legitimately shocking in this context), but movies such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited allowed their characters to express recognizable human emotions, sometimes in ways that gained extra power by arising out of such strictly controlled frames. In The French Dispatch, there are so many characters doing and saying so many things that it becomes a bit of a blur, with no particular moment or feeling any more important than another.
This all may make it sound as if you shouldn’t see the film, but to the contrary it’s a truly engaging, smart, whirlwind of enthusiasm, populated by literally dozens of recognizable faces (all part of that train set). Many are regulars in Anderson’s troupe: Murray, Brody, Wilson, Swinton, Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman (who shares story credit), and so on. Others are new to the game: Del Toro, Wright, Liev Schreiber. Still others pop up for no real reason: Elisabeth Moss, Fisher Stevens, Henry Winkler, and was that Christoph Waltz? It’s all part of the blink-and-you’ll miss it, “Where’s Waldo” appeal of the experience.
While The French Dispatch should hold up to multiple viewings, it raises the question of how far further down this aesthetic road Anderson can go. In Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb, we meet legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb’s mentally ill older brother Charles, whose condition has progressed to the point where his own once-promising artistic output had been reduced to an obsessive, repetitive, asemic graphomania. Anderson, of course, has yet to approach that level of interiority, and he never will. But as his clockwork creations grow more and more intricate, and the human component becomes less and less relevant, he risks losing sight of the balance that made him such a fresh voice in American cinema. (Opening Friday, Oct. 22, at the Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21.)
SPEAKING OF INCREASINGLY OBSESSIVE ARTISTS, here comes the strange-but-true story of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a Victorian-era illustrator, polymath, and all-around oddball who became famous in his day for his pictures of cats. If that were the whole story, though, this would be a very boring movie. Happily for its sake (if not Wain’s), a darker undercurrent runs beneath these timelessly cute, anthropomorphic felines.
Wain at first seems to be one of those adorably quirky souls who seem to have sprouted from the determinedly un-loamy soil of late 19th-century Britain. With five younger sisters and a widowed mother to support, he does a generally terrible job of it, bouncing from one crackpot idea to another, until the publisher of the London Evening News (Toby Jones) takes a liking to his cat pics. (They really are adorable.) Wain also falls in love with his sister’s governess (Claire Foy), and she with him, presenting the possibility of both financial and romantic satisfaction.
It’s not to be, however, and after a series of bad decisions and even worse breaks, Wain finds himself seduced more and more by his imagined animal worlds, and by the peculiar ideas he has about “electricity” and its motive force. As he does so, his drawings become more and more abstract, until they resemble psychedelic poster art more than the greeting-card-ready sketches he began with.
Director Will Sharpe faces a tough task in balancing the quirky, fantastical elements of Wain’s story with the rather depressing overall arc it takes, and he doesn’t entirely manage it. Cumberbatch brings a guileless eccentricity to the lead role, although Foy (as so often in feature films) doesn’t really have enough to do. The visuals are inventive, and smaller roles are entertainingly occupied by the likes of Taikia Watiti and, if you can believe it, Nick Cave as H.G. Wells. The story seems hard to believe at times, but a post-viewing Wikipedia expedition confirms that all of the basic facts are true. (Opens on Friday, Oct. 22 at the Living Room Theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime.)
- PS—In another odd coincidence, both of these films, one embodying obsessive artistry and the other depicting it, are narrated by women, The French Dispatch by Anjelica Huston and Louis Wain by Olivia Colman. Make of that what you will.