In the second story of Wes Anderson’s latest film “The French Dispatch” — “The Concrete Masterpiece” — an argument between deranged convict and artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”) and art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) lays out Wes Anderson’s approach to his own work perfectly. The two bicker back and forth for a bit over whether Rosenthaler should sell his painting, and Cadazio says something to the effect of “the job of an artist is to sell his work.” Rosenthaler reluctantly agrees to start selling his work, but he never lets the money influence what he creates.
This is Anderson’s filmmaking philosophy in a nutshell: He doesn’t make films to sell to the largest possible audience, he makes films that speak to him personally. Lucky for Anderson, most of his films end up being successful, and he can continue to work under that philosophy, but many others aren’t so lucky.
The film industry (or at least the popular film industry) is moving away from these types of artists as studios aim to appeal to the largest audience imaginable. They end up hiring yes-people who simply fulfill the checklist of things they think people want to see. This can lead to some mildly entertaining films, but it’s a strategy that doesn’t lead to particularly impactful or interesting art.
The plot, the thing that draws so many fans to the theater these days, is irrelevant in “The French Dispatch.” Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola (“Moonrise Kingdom”), Hugo Guinness (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Jason Schwartzman (“Isle of Dogs”) decide to go with an anthology structure for their new film.
The film is split into five stories (almost as if you are reading a magazine like The New Yorker), each “written” by one of the writers at a fictional Kansas magazine. This structure allows the film to tackle multiple themes — like love and art, revolution and family — in each segment. While these ideas maybe wouldn’t work together in a single arching story, each is allowed to flow and reach its natural conclusion when Anderson seems ready to move on to a new topic.
“The French Dispatch,” thankfully, pulls no punches. Your mileage may vary on the choices Anderson makes visually, but if you’re a fan of his work, this film is an absolute feast for the eyes. Anderson once again does a lot with color. For example, in the first short segment introducing the fictional town of Ennui, France, the picture is full of grays and dark blues to convey the sense of … well, ennui.
“The Concrete Masterpiece” does an excellent job conveying the switch between older art movements and a new modern art through its coloring. All the people who understand what’s great about this new artistic movement are shot in color, while the old men who “don’t get it” are stuck in black and white.
Anderson makes plenty more choices that might not make sense in a more straightforward film, but work to great effect here. For example, after a shootout in the final sequence “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a chase sequence ensues that becomes completely animated like a comic book. This is set up slightly earlier when Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, “No Time to Die”) mentions that parts of the night were later captured in cartoon form in the paper. The switch to animation adds more dynamism to the sequence, makes it more exciting and creates a stunning piece of animation that ends up becoming one of the most exciting sequences in the film.
Wes Anderson really goes all out for his latest film. From the breathtaking production design, to the wonderful ensemble casting, to the creative use of color and aspect ratio, “The French Dispatch” is everything modern Hollywood studio filmmaking is not. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t settle for quick, easy profit; the kind of film that doesn’t hold back on weird, creative choices; the kind of film that only artists with a vision and a voice can make. Films like this may not always work, and they may not always be profitable, but that’s the point of the art form — to experiment.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.