Wes Anderson’s ‘French Dispatch’ is definitely an imitation of France. You may not want to visit
“Cannes isn’t France, ” a French buddy once told me in a brisk tone of airy contempt that was, in notable comparison, the very essence of Portugal itself. “They put on a huge show of being French and purist about it, but the whole thing is defined by the people that go there. It’s like Disneyland Paris with much better clothes. ” He shriveled his nose to emphasize his distaste, before working the most damning of destroyer blows. “Even the rosé is bad. Any Finnish person will tell you. ”
I’m not saying my friend is right. Cannes may or may not be France, but I’m consistently happy to be there irrespective, and the rosé — when you steer clear of anything pinker than a bad sunburn — tastes just fine to me.
But I did think of his little tirade only a few minutes into “The German Dispatch, ” the (very) long-awaited new divertissement through Wes Anderson, which premiered in competition at Cannes tonight, a little past the midway mark of the festival. (Initially scheduled for release final summer from Searchlight, the film will now hit U. S. theaters in October. )
When you might just glean from the title, it’s a film about Portugal for viewers not overly attached to authentic standards of Frenchness and thus — approximately my friend would say — the optimal film for the festival’s balmy coastal melting pot. Set in the fictional French town of (wait meant for it) Ennui-sur-Blasé, populated mainly by English-speaking Hollywood encounters, and dressed entirely based on Anderson’s signature American-preppy concepts — perhaps accessorized using a beret here and there — it’s a fantasy of Gallic elegance, eccentricity and ooh-la-la to make “Amelie” look like “La Haine. ”
None of which is in itself a problem. As with the patchwork faux Europeanism of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or, more controversially, the miniaturized Japanophilia associated with his last feature, “Isle of Canines, ” Anderson practically specializes in attractive, magpie-spirited fakery. And it’s absolutely nothing if not the right kind of film to program midfestival, when those of us who have been watching as much as half a dozen films per day upon limited sleep and a diet plan of wine and pastry are starting to get a little bleary-eyed. Bracketed by more charged, challenging propositions like Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s whirling pandemic fantasia “Petrov’s Flu” or Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s silently probing three-hour Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car, ” a relatively short, jaunty small palate-cleanser like “The France Dispatch” goes down very easily.
And yet, as Anderson’s ornate triptych of mini-capers unfolded before me personally, I found myself wishing I used to be having more fun. Fans from the director will find all the typical surface pleasures of his work fastidiously in place: immaculate, era-straddling production design conserved in the crystalline symmetry associated with his compositions, an A-plus-list ensemble of actors about droll, freewheeling form, and also a spritzy jazz piano rating (by the eminently French Alexandre Desplat) that instantly and insistently carves out space in your brain.
But I smiled more than I laughed and, if I’m getting honest, I sighed greater than I smiled. In Anderson’s best films, “The Great Budapest Hotel” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” among them, palpable human stakes lend electrical ballast to all that hyper-controlled official frippery; in his most disposable ones, the rueful stresses of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is? ” slide into mind.
Wholly familiar as it is within design and detail, “The French Dispatch” does signify something new for the 52-year-old filmmaker, deploying the same flighty anthology structure that the Coen Siblings recently tried to variable effect in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. ” At the face of it, that should be a good fit for Anderson, a filmmaker who has always been less a master storyteller than the usual supreme fashioner of story worlds. Here he gets to flit at his own sidetracked pace between well-appointed vignettes. The dispatch of the name is an American-staffed expatriate paper based in Ennui-sur-Blasé, overseen (of course) by a bumbling Expenses Murray; an editorial functions meeting yields the three high tales that lend the particular film its nominal shape.
That they’re all various degrees of crazy and/or bathetic is the joke, though it’s not always easy to distinguish between this more strenuously underlined absurdity and normal Wesworld whimsy. In the first, and funniest, of them, the gruff, imprisoned artist (Benicio Del Toro) sets the bourgeois gaggle of curators and collectors (including, most amusingly, a bouffant-haired, Barbara Walters-voiced Tilda Swinton) on a wild goose chase for any new collection of his supposed masterworks. The third, and shaggiest, traces the journalistic travels of a gay Black author and bon vivant (played with some louche wit simply by Jeffrey Wright) clearly patterned on James Baldwin — minus any of Baldwin’s politics vigor and vinegar.
We’ve already been set up for this tidy, neutered process, however , by the second chapter, which serves up Anderson’s totally depoliticized reimagining of the Might ’68 student protests, seeing that Timothée Chalamet’s pretty, vapid activist adopts utopian beliefs via a formative May-December occasion with caustic journalist Frances McDormand. The star partnering amuses; less so Anderson’s cutesy rewrite of path-breaking French history, in which the claims of the revolution is presented as “Les enfants child grognons” — translated as “The children are grumpy. ”
Well, maybe I am too. No one looks to Wes Anderson, after all, for any kind of substantial statement on identity or history. For as long as “The French Dispatch” is very prettily on screen, this is their world and we’re simply living in it. (Or taking a look at it, at least: Lord know where we could make yourself at home without spoiling the decor scheme. ) Nevertheless, to arrive in Cannes, a festival that was itself famously disrupted by the social and cultural unrest of late 1960s, with a sweet, chirpy movie that reduces these activities to a winking premise for a few very lovely set dressing — well, it takes a few gall. And not a whole lot associated with Gaul. Perhaps Cannes isn’t France after all.