The French Dispatch it will be meticulously, painstakingly constructed. A rigorous attention to detail and an exacting eye for a highly defined personal aesthetic will come baked into its every frame, from the set design to the cinematography to its color palette(s) to its dialogue to its performances. Also,
Anderson’s films are all about artifice, about the theater of it all. He wants us to remain fully aware that we are watching his movies, to make us complicit in the act of observing. Know, for example, that The French Dispatch contains a sequence that shifts to animation to dramatize a high-speed chase, and another that transforms one character’s memory into a literal theatrical production. The film employs several freeze-framed tableaux of crowd scenes for us to admire, and as Anderson’s camera pans sloooowly across them, he wants us to notice that he’s not employing a photographic technique — he’s simply asked his actors to hold stock-still, unblinking.
He massages his dialogue into a near-musical cadence. His actors adopt his signature affectless, deadpan style of delivery.
It’s why Anderson has proven so divisive a filmmaker. Those of us who enjoy his work use words like stylized, idiosyncratic, and imaginative.
If you don’t like it, you employ a different set of descriptors entirely: Mannered. Self-indulgent. Twee.
Eye-candy is still candy, after all
Let’s agree: Anderson’s films are a pleasure to watch, in the moment. All that fastidiousness, all that assiduously symmetrical framing, all the sheer, cinematographic sweat-equity he puts into his movies for our enjoyment — not to mention the appearance of his go-to cadre of actors like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton — can’t help but leave you grinning from ear-to-ear as you gaze up at the screen.
Or more precisely: While you’re gazing up at the screen.
But what happens once once the film’s over and the lights go up? Will that highly specific feeling of pleasure stick with you? Or was all that eye-candy just so much sugar floss that dissolves in the lightest rain? That’s the real question before us.
The classic knock on Wes Anderson is that his fondness for extreme stylization too easily overwhelms the story — and the senses. If he doesn’t bother to connect his signature, fussily cinematic vision to anything resembling human emotion, it quickly devolves into nothing more than a posture — simple archness, mere satire, an exquisite but empty shell, a Rube Goldberg dollhouse.
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Whenever we viewers sense that a filmmaker’s devoted more thought to how to compose a given shot than what’s at stake within it, we tend to get worried. If you don’t care about your characters, we think, why should you expect us to? You’re so focused on the window dressing, you’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to be selling us the dang clothes.
This is likely why those Anderson movies driven by directly relatable emotional states of being like familial sadness (The Royal Tenenbaums), adolescent alienation (Rushmore) or romantic longing (The Grand Budapest Hotel) find wider, more devoted audiences than films like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited, in which the filmmaker’s baseline misanthropy is allowed to drive the action.
Happily, The French Dispatch proves itself to be an act of devotion — both to a specific kind of writing, and to human attachment itself.