The French Dispatch is bananas, and that’s what’s wonderful about it—when it is wonderful, which isn’t all the time. Wes Anderson’s almost indescribable new movie is a takeoff of a spoof of a parody of a tribute of a salute. And when you peel back the layers of irony and whimsy, you might find that, unexpectedly, The French Dispatch is a surprising celebration of Middle American mid-century cultural enthusiasm and its triumph over old-style European pretension.
The French Dispatch is about the assembly and contents of the final issue of a magazine very much like the New Yorker—only this fictional version is published in a French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé. As the movie begins, the year is 1975, and the editor and founder of The French Dispatch has died, leaving a will stipulating that his literary creation is to end its existence along with him. Though he’s lived in France for 50 years, editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. is no effete émigré. He’s a plainspoken native of Liberty, Kansas—said to be just 10 miles from the geographical center of the United States—who began the magazine while on a trip to France. Arthur convinced his father, his hometown’s newspaper publisher, to stuff his journal into the Sunday edition of the Evening Sun. His magazine soon eclipsed the newspaper that had contained it—and became legendary as well for Arthur’s loving and eccentric treatment of its even more eccentric writing staff.
Howitzer is played by Anderson’s muse, Bill Murray, and he is one of the two genuinely wise people among the motley crew of writers and eccentrics Anderson lovingly caricatures here. The other is an elderly fellow Kansan named Upshur Clampette, known as "Maw" (and please note here the entirely intentional similarity between her name and nickname and the names and nicknames of the oil-rich Ozark family from The Beverly Hillbillies). Maw has a thick country accent and plain clothes—and a spectacular eye for art that makes her one of the world’s great collectors. Her finds are placed in a museum in her hometown whose entrance is literally on the edge of a working cornfield. We see this in one of the literally hundreds of beautiful, witty, twee images—meticulously framed with a miniaturist’s care, every detail down to the typeface carefully chosen and thought-through—that have made Anderson’s reputation both for good and ill.
It’s hilarious to see stalks of corn as high as an elephant’s eye right outside a gift shop, but as is true of much of The French Dispatch, Anderson is delivering a sophisticated joke with real-life resonance. For in fact, some of the best American museums comprise the personal collections of businessmen and doctors who did not rely on the advice or counsel of the grandees in New York (the Barnes, in Merion, Pa.; the Clark, in Williamstown, Mass.; the Nelson-Atkins, in Kansas City).
And that, I think, is the secret point of The French Dispatch, whose three long segments tell the stories of three articles published in the magazine. The best is about Maw Clampette’s purchase of a monumental work of art painted on the walls of a jail by a schizophrenic murderer (Benicio del Toro) serving a life sentence whose sole inspiration for greatness is a beautiful prison guard (Léa Seydoux, recently seen as James Bond’s paramour in No Time to Die).
The longest and strangest is an out-and-out send-up of the May 1968 riots in France—only here instead of promoting Maoism, the rioters are literally portrayed as grumpy kids just trying to get access to the girls’ dormitory at college. And they are undone when the head rioter (played by Timothée Chalamet) gets so distracted by the two women in his life that he fails to make a chess move in a game with the prefect of police—and his refusal to play leads the cops to crush the riot. Here, too, it seems that Anderson is more interested in making fun of the French than in joining with the classic mid-century New Yorker portrayal of Paris as the font of culture and civility by contrast with the coarse United States.
This is, without question, a deeply odd piece of work. But maybe nothing makes you more American than being an American abroad. Wes Anderson lives in Paris. Maybe he should take his own advice and move to Kansas.
Published under: Movie Reviews