Opinion

The French Dispatch is a film for readers

It's time for Wes Anderson to win a screenwriting award 

It's a curious thing that Wes Anderson has not yet been reduced to a handy adjective like some other directors — "Wellesian," "Kubrickian," "Whedonesque," and the ever-popular "Lynchian." 

Instead we hear that a Miami Beach hotel has a "Wes Anderson-esque library room"; that your enjoyment of the 2020 Jane Austen adaptation Emma will depend on "your tolerance for archness, twee, and lightly deployed Anderson-ish tics"; that a restaurant menu featuring "a whimsical mix of fancified Eastern and Central European staples and highly technical archaic French delicacies" can somehow feel "tailor-made for a Wes Anderson world." Indeed, Anderson's aesthetic is so strongly linked with warm, retro colors, meticulously symmetrical compositions, dollhouse-like cross-sections, and Bill Murray that "in a scale of Wes Andersonness, how Wes Anderson-y is The French Dispatch?" is a question that somehow makes perfect sense.

But Anderson's almost self-parodic reputation for stylized visuals and techniques is doing him a disservice in one major regard. The director has written or co-written all 10 of his films, and yet he's rarely celebrated as a screenwriter, having earned screenplay Oscar nods for The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) but winning none. His newest film, The French Dispatch, out Friday, is not a favorite in the 2022 original screenplay Oscar race either, and it's a pity because even more than it is a masterfully Andersonian aesthetic accomplishment, it is also a literary one.

Part of that is purely a matter of subject. The French Dispatch is an anthology film about the making of the final issue of a fictional New Yorker-inspired magazine, in which each episode of the film draws from the issue's table of contents. In order to make the concept work, Anderson (who wrote the screenplay from a story he co-created with Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) writes in a pastiche of some of his favorite New Yorker writers like Joseph Mitchell and Luc Sante, who come together in Owen Wilson's Herbsaint Sazerac, or Rosamond Bernier and S.N. Behrman, who inspired Tilda Swinton's art critic J.K.L. Berensen. 

It's a premise that requires the careful management of competing voices in the script, and Anderson handles the task with characteristic precision. "After receiving the Host, marauding choirboys (half-drunk on the Blood of Christ) stalk unwary pensioners and seek havoc," bluntly intones the writer Sazerac with the same "wild exactitude" (and perhaps wild exaggeration) of the notoriously eccentric Joseph Mitchell. Meanwhile, Anderson's Roebuck Wright, a James Baldwin-inspired culinary critic, waxes poetically that "the drink, a milky, purplish aperitif, ferociously fragrant, overtly medicinal, and ever-so-faintly anesthetizing (and cooled to a glacial viscosity in a miniature version of the type of vacuum-flask normally associated with campsites and schoolrooms) cast a spell — which, during the subsequent sixty-second internal, was to be mortally broken." 

Sometimes Anderson even lifts full sentences from his real-world inspirations, including stealing the writer Mavis Gallant's observation about "the touching narcissism of the young." Such a playfulness of language, voice, and homage requires an attention and protectiveness of each semi-fictional writer, which in turn makes Anderson a sort of stand-in for The French Dispatch's dedicated editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), who is himself an echo of the early New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn. When a legal adviser in the script, for example, complains that Sazerac (Mitchell) is "impossible to fact-check. He changes all the names, and only writes about hoboes, pimps, and junkies," Howitzer simply defends, "these are his people" — a generosity toward unconventional characters that Anderson seems to share.

The book publications that correspond with the release of The French Dispatch further give it away as a readers' movie. In addition to the full screenplay being available to purchase before the film's release, the movie also warranted an accompanying reader, An Editor's Burial, which contains Anderson's "inspirations for The French Dispatch." Included in the collection is Mavis Gallant's "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook Part I," for example, which inspired the section of the film starring Timothée Chalamet as a May '68-style student revolutionary with Frances McDormand as Gallant's stand-in, Lucinda Krementz; also included is Janet Flanner's "Dearest Edith," with Flanner likewise loaning herself to Krementz's composite character.

The heavy references make the script centrifugal. The film ends with a dedication that almost doubles as a syllabus, citing writers like E.B. White, Lillian Ross, and St. Clair McKelway. "There are so many things we're borrowing from," Anderson explained to Susan Morrison in the interview published at the beginning of An Editor's Burial. "It's nice to be able to introduce people to some of them." Swinton shared a similar sentiment with The Independent while promoting the film: "Any young kid particularly – or anybody who loves this film – I hope they do use that reading list at the end [of the film] and read, say, James Baldwin," she said.

The French Dispatch provoked divisive reactions at its early screenings: It was both booed and given a nine-minute-long standing ovation at the 2021 Cannes film festival. Some have taken issue with the way the director executes an "artistic vision so intensely felt and intricately realized, yet with what feels like relatively little inside it." Others are simply fed up with Wes Anderson doing Wes Anderson

It's true that The French Dispatch can brush up against certain modern cultural flashpoints like protests and incarceration, only to reduce them to a charming aesthetic without additional analysis. Personally, though, I don't watch Anderson films for their insightful political commentary.

Instead, I find that The French Dispatch is best appreciated like An Editor's Burial, as a collection of charming stories for the reader whose only interest is in that one all-important Andersonian question: What happens next?

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