The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright
screenplay by Wes Anderson
directed by Wes Anderson
by Walter Chaw Out of three sections, not including a framing story, there is one that gets what it's after with the soul of wit and a tug of the heart along the way. It's the middle section, the one concerning a brilliant modern artist incarcerated in a French prison for dismembering two bartenders who falls in love with one of his jailers. He is Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his eternal Beatrice, his jack-booted muse, is Simone (Léa Seydoux), and the pas de deux they perform together encapsulates a range of lovely nuance that crystallizes what it is that Wes Anderson does very well, if only occasionally these days, in brief flashes glimpsed between the metric ton of artifice and affectation. For many, the chantilly is the point of Anderson--those gaudy elements that make him one of the most satirized filmmakers of his generation. For me, and up through The Darjeeling Limited, what I liked best about Wes Anderson was his sometimes shockingly effective grappling with absent fathers and broken families. His twee quirk used to be a delivery system for emotional squalls. Now, if those crescendos are there, they're gasping for air.
The story of Moses and Simone feels like a small return to form, sandwiched between a section that tells of the Les Misérables-like rebellion of "grumpy" Parisian students led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who may or may not be named after Franco Zeffirelli of Romeo and Juliet fame. Anderson's Zeffirelli has two Juliets, I suppose: grizzled editor Lucinda (Frances McDormand) and a gamine, literal Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), the leader of a group of revolutionary girls who have their own idea of what their manifesto should be. It plays out as it's intended to play out, I think, i.e., as the live-action version of Mr. Fox's little boy grown to puberty and embarrassed by his muscles. I should interject that the premise of the film's construction is that each of these segments represents a long article being published in the titular boutique literary magazine's final edition, in memoriam of its long-term editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). As he so often does in Anderson's films, Murray essays the role of patriarch, though Howitzer is warmer, more supportive and accepting, than any of his previous father figures. Whatever troubles Anderson was working through with dads, he appears to have resolved them, leaving the burden of creating tension and subtext on...well, there's not much to hang it on, and so there's your trouble.
The final section involves a master chef who works for the gendarmerie, Nescafier (Steve Park), and how he is involved in recovering the son of the Commissaire (the great Mathieu Amalric), the very Uzi Tenenbaum-ian Gabriel (Gabriel Ryan), from a colourful gang of criminals played by Saoirse Ronan and Edward Norton, among others. There's an animated sequence here of an elaborate Keystone Cops chase sequence that goes on too long while also pointing to Anderson's ever-swelling obsession with absolute control over his progressively insular doll's-house environments. The submarine intro of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou expands into a multi-storey tenement building in The French Dispatch; the standard ensemble with familiar players grows to include a natural fit like Amalric and poorly-lubricated insertions like McDormand and Christoph Waltz, Lois Smith and Griffin Dunne. Each section seems to be about the isolation of creative personalities in unheralded pursuits. The best performance belongs to Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, the magazine's gay food writer, who tries in vain to bury the best part of his piece about the kidnapping and its resolution because he feels that Nescafier's romanticization of the singular, rare taste of a deadly toxin, as a metaphor, is altogether too sad. Wright's work in the film is one of the three or four genuinely beautiful things about it--in particular, a moment where Howitzer arrives to bail Roebuck out of the pen for the crime of...love. It's a scene that clarifies the thesis of Thomas Mann's great quote about how writers are "people for whom the act of writing is very difficult."
Of course, a feted and popular artist with particular identifiers who makes a piece about the thankless, glory-free labour of creation is due his share of derision, but Anderson strikes at the self-pity at the heart of the struggling artist a time or two and it's glorious. Returning to Moses and Simone, it is this segment that never loses sight of how painful it is to create from a personal place for the judgment and acquisitiveness of others. Nor does it lose sight of.... The art Moses creates is urgent and hungry--red paint, peculiarly biological and in motion somehow, jagged representations of Simone's nude poses that struck me as not arch satires of Modern Art but legitimate arguments in its favour. I love that Simone recovers from her posing by cracking her shoulders and back, unselfconsciously and as a reminder of the fragility of the human form--its strangeness and maybe even its incompatibility with function. We were never meant, really, to walk upright, much less hang from straps or stand on one leg with arms akimbo. Moses's longing for her feels immediate rather than theoretical. And art dealer Julian Cadazio's longing for Moses's work isn't played as a joke only other artists would understand; he's a true zealot looking to champion a genius. The segment is funny and assured, and ultimately less about the largesse of an editor in Howitzer who would permit the publication of this piece than it is about an artist in Moses who is literally strapped into a straitjacket to quell his active urges. When Anderson chooses to show the passage of time with a younger Moses clapping the older Moses on the shoulder and stepping off the stage, I had a good cry.
Alas, for the rest of The French Dispatch, there's a palpable emotional reticence. Maybe that will evaporate with subsequent viewings, as it has for me with some of Anderson's work in the past. His stuff is so convoluted that I spend most first-time watches struggling with the architecture of it rather than appreciating whatever passions are driving it. He's gotten so Byzantine, though, that I've become loathe to revisit anything since The Darjeeling Limited and come to dread new Anderson films as objects like those all-black 1000-piece puzzles with pieces that are all, you know, the same. The French Dispatch feels like a therapy session with a reluctant subject, and Anderson's presence in his films is increasingly distant and arch. Yet there are those moments, still, that suggest depths worth plumbing. A love letter to an editor is, on its surface, exactly my speed, but The French Dispatch, save fleeting if powerful hints of humanity, left me irritated, bored, and ultimately cold. Maybe Anderson needs new creative partners. Maybe he needs the old ones back. Most likely, he's resolved issues I can never quite seem to and become an artist who just isn't for me anymore.