There is a moment, deep within the maze of Wes Anderson’s latest film, when art takes on the power to set a prisoner free. We are in France, in the time of de Gaulle (or someone like him). At the police station in the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) has been in a holding cell called the Chicken Coop for some days. An anonymous American, still in the eveningwear from the clandestine gay bar where he was picked up, his only contact is a number on the polite rejection letter from an American magazine that publishes there.
When he arrives at the Chicken Coop, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) does not inquire into the reasons behind Roebuck’s imprisonment. Instead, he assigns him a book review, to be written in the hours remaining in his cell. Roebuck’s release is a formality, albeit a complicated one, expensed as part of the editor-in-chief’s offer for a full-time job. The capacity for that Howitzer recognizes in him is, in this moment, self-evident. At Roebuck’s gratitude, Howitzer brooks no sentimentality. This change of station ought to remain pure—that is, purely transactional. He buttons the initiation rite with one of his famous slogans: “No crying.”
There are many prisoners in Anderson’s tenth feature, The French Dispatch, and many artists. And while there is only some overlap between the two, in the eyes of the film, all artists are criminals. Each of its miniature stories is an allegory for the excess or abnormality of the artistic impulse, of a tendency to transgression that some editorial force—whether patrons, muses, parents, or police—must stabilize. Only in its legible, exchangeable form can this transgression earn the wages that underwrite the editor’s survival in, and maintain the artist’s separation from, society at large. Howitzer’s atelier is the outermost shell of this Matryoshka doll, doubling as ample cloisters in which each of his staff—in the fashion of 11 rue Simon-Crubellie in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual—enjoys their own lovingly detailed office-apartment.
The uneasy, inevitable twist-turn accounting of excess into art, art into money, money into excess again, is the film’s beating heart. From a director who is known for it, The French Dispatch is Anderson’s most excessive work, a feature-length overload of sound, image, and text, which brings the full weight of imagination, citation, star-power, and style to bear on the tightest possible target: a three-part omnibus staging of an issue of Howitzer’s magazine, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Oblique angles, tableaux vivants, expressionistic color effects, and cartoons make their debut alongside an extensive inventory of Anderson’s well-known tropes (portrait framing, child prodigies, ‘60s pop soundtracks, faux-intellectuals, plays-within-a-movie, May-December romance, et cetera) that unfurls so fast, and in such high volume, that just watching it can feel like a semiotic juggling act.
That its structure should serve its flourishes as much as the other way around is, of course, part of the fun. But it’s also an expression of Anderson’s relation to his own films, and to cinema more generally. If the archetype of his career’s first phase was the melancholiac who longs to live in the pages of a book (think Dignan, Max Fisher, Richie Tenenbaum), in this second phase, the pages of the book are, sometimes literally, already where we live. Bypassing those first films’ ambiguous tension between fiction and reality and the tender sparseness that sometimes comes with it, the later works hum with the chattering stability of a dynamo. Superficial similarities across Anderson’s filmography have mostly camouflaged this development for critics, but it’s not surprising that the film where this early, ambiguous structure is buckling under the weight of the newer, fantastical one—The Darjeeling Limited (2007)—was also his last commercial failure.
With depth comes a risk of aesthetic as well as financial instability: since then, Anderson has been a filmmaker of increasingly elaborate surfaces, a trader in refined artifice. Curating its various audio-visual assets, holding them for a time, and selling them off before their novelty can dissipate, The French Dispatch is a kind of cinematic arbitrage, a perpetual contract negotiation between audience and director that is at once moving, cynical, and entertaining in the extreme.
The film’s chief avatar of art-commerce is at once among its most absurd and most sympathetic. The art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) in the first of the film’s chapters, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” negotiates the sale of a canvas with its painter, Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio Del Toro). Both inmates in Ennui prison, Cadazio exudes the energy of a grifter even as he attempts quite earnestly to make Rosenthaler rich: “Of course it’s for sale. That’s what makes it art. If you don’t want to sell it, don’t paint it.” Rosenthaler’s work is an outsider’s abstract expressionism, a vision inspired by the prison arts program and one beautiful, ruthless guard (Léa Seydoux). To his partners in the gallery, Cadazio offers a genuinely convincing explanation of his new client that doubles as a thesis of aesthetic commerce as aesthetic progress: Rosenthaler could paint anything, but he thinks this is better, “and I sort of agree with him.” What the artist sees through his insanity, and what the art dealer sees through his greed are, in the end, the same thing: the future.
The protagonist of the second chapter, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” demands not just a representation of the future, but the thing itself. Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet) is a polite teenage naïf caught up in student demonstrations in the streets of Ennui. His skill on the chessboard—the movement’s battlefield of choice—makes him their natural leader. But the subject of “Revisions,” really, is the anxiety of editorial influence. Its author, prickly American Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), begins a romantic liaison with Zeffirelli, rewrites his manifesto, and adds fuel to a dispute over its printing costs. Naturally, in this libidinal economy, the committee treasurer is also Zeffirelli’s jilted girlfriend. Later, in a diaphanous and fluttering postscript, we learn of the boy’s martyrdom, and of the Guevara-like reinscription of his image as a symbol of revolution, an endlessly circulating coin of that inexhaustible (because, unattainable) commodity: perpetual youth.
For the Anderson skeptics of a particular stripe, the thin caricature in “Revisions” of real-life events in France circa May ’68 is bound to irritate. Anderson is coy enough to stage his own version in March when, historically, Henri Langlois’ removal from the Cinémathèque française first stoked tensions in the streets of Paris. But even in jest, his flattening of this complex, explosive, and historically unique alliance of the Old and New Left into an inchoate adolescent tantrum feels willfully smug. For some, any version of May ’68—even a fantastical one—that elides the politics of class struggle will be egregious, and I sort of agree with them. Whatever the aesthetic distance, Zeffirelli is an obvious composite of real-life student demonstrators, one of whom also drowned during a demonstration. But unlike Zeffirelli, Gilles Tautin was not fixing a pirate radio transmitter when he died: instead, he was squaring off with police alongside striking auto workers at a Renault plant in the suburbs north of Paris His rebirth as an icon came at the head of a funeral procession of students and workers nearly 5,000 strong. Some still consider his death a police killing.
Anderson’s indulgence elsewhere of the policier, and of the cops’ traditional role as agents of moral and narrative structure, is another still-queasier element on The French Dispatch’s periphery that moves to the center in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” More troubling still is that Roebuck, the chapter’s author, is clearly a cipher (in carriage, if not exactly in profundity) for James Baldwin. A giant both in his time and ours, Baldwin is of course both person and persona, and what Anderson takes of each, he takes with reverence. But what he has taken does not render sensible its pairing with the madcap silliness and brutality of “Dining Room,” where the police squad’s gifted short-order chef is called in to assist in a hostage situation. Even the poignancy of Roebuck’s first meeting with Howitzer—mentioned by Roebuck as an aside on a ‘70s-chic late night talk show—risks shriveling under the righteous heat of Baldwin’s judgement felt beyond the grave that an artist of such consequence ought to be used, even in facsimile, so inconsequentially.
The above are not the first instances where Anderson has made unserious use of serious material. In hindsight, the dollhouse fascists in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) were a canary in the coal mine for this ascendant, overtly postmodern style—of a fondness for artifice crowding out a fidelity to history. Beneath the tone of whimsy that prevails in The French Dispatch and elsewhere, there is a band of affects, intensities, and quotations that can feel carelessly extracted from their context in the material world, a world which—as Anderson departs further into fantasy—he seems increasingly intent on repressing.
Each repression, so the story goes, brings about its expression in turn. In The French Dispatch, the repression of materiality, of history, of politics, returns in the neurotic settling and resettling of accounts. The trickling away of Howitzer’s press-baron fortune on compensation plans, itemized expenses, and the magazine’s overstuffed latest issue is the dwindling sand in an hourglass, for the publication itself as well as its editor’s life. Howitzer’s eleventh-hour defiance of his own story budget (“I’m not killing anyone!”) is a gesture not of editorial austerity, but artistic excess: for the crime of reversing the terms of the economy over which he presides, the editor must die. Like the final, elaborate enterprise of Perec’s Bartlebooth, Howitzer’s will orders his life’s work undone, the magazine discontinued, the offices sold, the subscribers reimbursed. Death, that most impartial editor, intervenes to balance the ledgers at last.
Anderson’s allergy to politics, to the integrity of the sign to its historical referent, comes as no real surprise. The real May ‘68 was a turning point in global cinematic consciousness, a crossroads that saw an irrevocable split in the French New Wave, as one of its leaders, Godard, embraced politics, while the other, Truffaut, embraced entertainment. Truffaut is Anderson’s hero, and his belief in cinema as something apart from the world, whose emotional splendor intensifies as it departs further and further from life itself, is one that Anderson shares wholeheartedly. In the brightest moments of The French Dispatch, I share it wholeheartedly myself. Then, over a montage of a nude model’s athletic poses, in stark black-and-white, I hear a word (just out of place, but like everything in the film, deliberate) “Olypian.” Could I prove this to be a passing homage to Leni Riefenstahl in a court of law? Maybe, maybe not. But in the grand accounting of the film’s vast ledgers, I am not so certain of my faith anymore.
It is possible to become sick from confections, to be poisoned by fantasy. Late in The French Dispatch, the police chef must eat a poisoned radish he himself has prepared. As he slowly recovers, he describes the poison’s flavor as something he has never tasted before. It is another moment of not-quite-self-awareness from Anderson, whose hyperstimulated palette is perhaps liable to confuse the poisonous with the new.
Entertainment will always be a function of art, and if it is to continue to move us as people, great art must always have the power to entertain. But entertainment at the price of amnesia is the essence of spectacle, the zombified image-regime which some in the streets in May ‘68 were, even then, trying to bring down. Like many of his generation, Anderson has withdrawn from telling contemporary stories, but The French Dispatch cycles through its material with the agility, and with the obsession (and the thrill, and the emptiness) of an infinite scroll. This latest film reaffirms his status as a great showman and technician who is gradually losing touch with a practice beyond the subsistence of his own atelier—beyond branded merchandise, European location shoots, laughably large A-list ensembles, and above all the security of the latest budget.
It is time for a new phase for Wes Anderson, for a rejection of stability, for a return from fantasy—into what, I don't know. To be a great artist again, he must be unafraid to watch his own stock drop, to destroy the policeman (or the editor) in his head. You cannot die in a dream, but you cannot live there either. He might have to invent a new poison.