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Why UT Austin alum Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is one of his best yet

Eric Webb
Austin 360

The stories in a magazine rarely have much in common, except that an editor put a little of themselves into each one, and then glued them together at the spine. 

“The French Dispatch” is University of Texas golden boy Wes Anderson’s full-body embrace of the great age of expatriate writers, and the anthologies that collected their words. Now in theaters, it was a natural pick to close down the Paramount Theatre on Oct. 21, the first night of Austin Film Festival.  

The fest has returned to in-person operation after a pandemic year off and ends Oct. 28. “The Same Storm,” Peter Hedges’ COVID anthology, filmed entirely using remote video technology like FaceTime, opened up the evening. That film concerns itself with the great daisy chain of human connection. These are fractious, isolating times. Why not sit back and carefully stare at some connections with company? 

Bill Murray, left, and Pablo Pauly in a scene from "The French Dispatch," the latest film from University of Texas alum Wes Anderson.

Anderson is one of the most distinctive film stylists in Hollywood history, whether you like that style or not. I love it. “The French Dispatch” delivers as one of his greatest projects, where even the filmmaker’s signature weaknesses cannot topple a singularly gorgeous ode to strangers in strange lands. 

'The French Dispatch' cast includes Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton and more Hollywood stars

Framed around the final issue of the titular periodical, editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) is the mostly benevolent dictator around whom orbits a stylish, brilliant, idiosyncratic cast of journalists writing about their lives abroad in Ennui, France, for subscribers back in Liberty, Kansas.  

Anderson delivers to us a true magazine: an obituary, a travelogue and three stories.  

I’ll let you discover the first one for yourself.  

Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) narrates the opening travelogue through the sordid streets of Ennui from his omnipresent bicycle. Scene set. 

“The Concrete Masterpiece” finds the writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, shifting shape this time into a clucking, caftanned chicken lady of great elegance) recounting the story of an insane inmate (Benicio del Toro), the asylum guard he loves (Léa Seydoux) and the art collector (Adrien Brody) obsessed with the paintings that she inspires the madman to create. 

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“Revisions to a Manifesto” entangles resolutely alone reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) in a student revolution, led by mustachioed idealist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and motorbiking firebrand Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Krementz, ever at a journalistic and personal remove, also becomes wrapped in Zeffirelli’s sheets (or vice versa, technically). 

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri play student rebels in "The French Dispatch."

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” embeds food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in a dinner party that turns into a madcap kidnapping chase, where only a renowned police chef (Stephen Park) holds the ingredients to a happy ending. 

Shot selections, attention to details are a hallmark of Wes Anderson movies

The pretty pastel pictures of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the vintage vacation postcards of “Moonrise Kingdom,” and now, the midcentury lost-and-found collection of “The French Dispatch” hit either your sweet or sour tastebuds, and usually nowhere in-between. If Anderson’s retro fetish gives you lemon face, well, whatcha doing reading a review? A visual artist embracing a visual medium with a distinct and attractive point of view — quelle horreur! 

Here, Anderson’s diorama sets are on full, glorious display among the alleyways and cobblestones of old Europe. His work usually has a feeling of play, and “The French Dispatch” takes an even bigger bite out of that baguette, with frozen-in-time tableaus that pan across the screen, Winsor McKay-style animated sequences and French cafes that dissemble like gingerbread.  

Any single shot could make a college dorm room’s cut. You can’t take your eyes off the edges of the frame, because you’ll never know what will emerge from any cardinal direction. Glowing hallways make for keyholes on 40-foot fields of black. Chalamet and Khoudri sail through the air on two slow-motion wheels, every bit the echo of Kim and Kanye in the infamous “Bound 2” music video.  

And of course, Khoudri’s white motorcycle helmet immovably sits atop her head like a space-age pearl, and every pack of cigarettes sounds like a Lucky Strike ad coming out the family radio, and you bask in the aesthetic porn of an estate sale well-plundered. 

Tilda Swinton narrates one of a trio of stories at the center of "The French Dispatch."

The man has always loved a Pantone swatch, and Anderson devotees will find plenty of grist for chatter outside the theater with how he treats color in “The French Dispatch.” The framing scenes within the magazine’s office are yellowed like the pages of a well-loved periodical, and the trio of stories are largely rendered in a typesetter’s black and white.  

But then there are snatches of film presented in gorgeous, saturated, almost mushroom-trip levels of color. The startling blue eyes of a showgirl played by Saoirse Ronan, the purple hair of a dowager revealed after the bracing kick of an aperitif, the gold and saffron paint coating the prison wall-bound frescoes of a tortured genius, as viewed when the muse who inspired them strolls past — knock yourself out on the why of it all. In tales of outsiders roaming through a peculiar inside, maybe they just signal the carnal sensations that bring these dead souls back to life. 

The other hallmark of Anderson’s films, the all-star ensemble, also is dialed up to 11 in “The French Dispatch.” Company stalwarts like McDormand, Murray, Swinton and Brody anchor the director’s least conventionally structured flick yet. Bit parts punching above their weight class abound — Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Lois Smith, Liev Schreiber. New faces fit right into the house style, from timelessly youthful Chalamet to the movie-stealing Jeffrey Wright. The latter’s portrait of a gay Black American in midcentury France (inspired in part by James Baldwin) with perfect memory of every word he’s ever written is the surest symbol of an Anderson movie: great taste with a core of deep sadness. 

The three main tales are different, yeah, but bound. They’re tied by the main characters’ relationships with Murray’s fatherly editor, most literally. But there’s also loneliness in each, and a search for a passion — a muse, a manifesto, a flavor never before tasted — that might make the days in this town on the Blasé River mean something. As Wilson’s character says in the travelogue: “Ennui rises suddenly on a Monday.” There’s a looming threat of incoherence, perhaps, in the scattershot world of this film. I’m inclined to think it just begs another watch. 

But if that is indeed an ink blot on “The French Dispatch,” it wouldn’t be the only one. Even in an Anderson narrative with more female perspectives than ever, a sinister, alien view of women pervades the runtime. Long shots of Seydoux’s nude form skirt leering, and an assault joke at Swinton’s expense lands with an ouch. More plainly, the appetites of men drive every plot, even when a woman has the narrator’s microphone.  

Wright’s central presence is welcome, too, because Anderson’s world is still, conspicuously, mighty blanc.  

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And “The French Dispatch,” despite its inspiration from The New Yorker and a bygone era of romantic reportage, isn’t much of a journalism movie, either, though I’m willing to check my biases. (The way Murray’s editor coddles those writers? Toxic, bruh.) 

There’s one journalistic principle that “The French Dispatch” gets, and gloriously so. “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is its most human, for my money. The privileges of meeting people, and telling their stories so that you might figure out how to tell your own, is a real perk of the job. In one scene, Wright and Park’s characters share a moment of understanding about being foreigners.  

“We’ll find what eluded us in the place we used to call home,” Wright says. 

A story is just a search for an answer. And a magazine collects those stories — otherwise, they would have to ask all alone. Is there anything kinder than that? 

'The French Dispatch'

Grade: A-

Starring: Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Timothée Chalamet

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Watch: In theaters