The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

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Gosh, this is about as good as it gets, isn't it? Wes Anderson, around the making of The Darjeeling Limited, maybe even before that with Life Aquatic, began to dive into the haunted rooms and melancholy nostalgia of his own fussy dollhouse aesthetic. His early films functioned as messy mannered displays of human absurdity, often chiseled with a quick line or grace note, the creative flower that allowed everything else to bloom into meaning. Gut punches like "I've had a rough year, Dad." or "I know, she was mine too." soon fell into a form of precise flowery scripting that held the weight of the world in its balance: the first time I heard "I wonder if it remembers me" and "In the end, they shot him." could be on a personal shortlist of memorable movie moments. Wes Anderson, over the course of his career, has found a method of so outwardly and vibrantly sculpting his own universe that it seems to be a secret challenge of his to bury traditional schemes of emotion deep within the earth's crust. The delight isn't merely in the mile-a-minute sight gags, the luminescent pastels, the harsh contrasts of vulgarity and sweet candy styling. It's also that one line, or that simple gesture, which wraps the entire production in a soft silky bow. All you need to do is think of that one moment, and the movie in every detail rushes back, a sudden flicker of memory.

The Grand Budapest Hotel played with this effectiveness, tumbling down a rabbit-hole of stories within stories, observing how the façade of pre-war opulence is contrasted with the toils of history and the evils of fascism, and concluding with a harsh dose of reality that was often mistaken upon release as cold or sudden. If you felt that way, it'll only take a second viewing to realize it's devastating as fuck, and Wes Anderson hides his cards until the very last minute, depending on his lavish crime caper exterior to illuminate the anguish within. The French Dispatch isn't as politically-minded in spite of a partial May '68 inspiration, but it is fully an evolution of GBH (Isle of Dogs, which at release felt like a side-step, is even more so now) in terms of structure. Wes Anderson may not have a firm grasp of elaborating on the political context of his playhouse dioramas (and beyond aesthetic showmanship, I'd argue there's no reason for him to, I don't need him to give us that), but he knows how to let these characters loose.

His latest film is a joy of inventive sights and finnicky wonder. Taking on the format of 'The French Dispatch', a magazine that is basically The New Yorker in all but name, there is a great beauty in observing the ebb and flow of Wes Anderson freed from the constraints of a central focus. He leads us to that gut-punch in a tantalizing non-linear fashion. As an anthology movie, he dismantles and toys with ideas of city history, art culture, revolution, hostage situations, food, even the forbidden taste of poison. This is less of an ode to 'journalism' as a concept and a practice, which is understandably how Searchlight has been selling it, than yet another tribute to Anderson's appreciation of the collective. How our personal triumphs and failures, and the intertwining destinies of individual histories, can be organized into a single issue of a magazine. Our own stories guided along by an editor, maybe not exactly how they happened, but how they were meant to be known. It's an astonishing vision, and an absurd flex of filmmaking.

What's most obviously impressive is the length Wes Anderson goes to construct details that are almost immediately tossed aside. It's practically impossible to find your way into this movie. The shifts from B&W to color, live-action to animation, not to mention the delicate balance of multiple aspect ratios. It starts and it rarely stops for a breath. But if you've been keeping up, it'll knock the wind out of you, or whatever you might have left. Every actor is in pure Wes mode, drunk on that snappy, modulated serum he must've concocted in a lab. DP Robert Yeoman continues to create images that will linger in my head (and 'one perfect shot' instagram pages) for the rest of time. And Alexandre Desplat is still quietly filling the auditorium with the prettiest soundtracks of the modern era. It's so WES that the claims of it being 'self-parody' aren't fully off-base.

But there's something here that I haven't found in any other Wes Anderson film, except maybe Life Aquatic: a genuine sense that he's searching for something beyond the structure of his own intricate design, or delving into the mechanisms of a great story. Not even focusing solely on narrative, but pushing towards the boundaries of his style, diving into sheer pleasantries for the sake of it. He's really exploring his brand of iconography, self-aware and yet fully embracing his usual characteristics and quirks. But all the while, it becomes clear that he's painstakingly building up these tableaux, these scattered caricatures and stories, not just for a line, or even a moment, but one of his strongest conclusions yet. A final scene that is one crushing blow after another, moving and hysterical in equal measure. A band of workers mourning the loss of a man who believed in each and every one of them. "No crying."

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