Wes Anderson movies are like ships in bottles. They’re that stylized, that precise, that self-contained. One of those movies (“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” 2004) is about an actual ship.
What’s both so satisfying and so maddening about Anderson’s career is how precious those ships and bottles can be: precious as in valuable, but also as in affected. The road from “Bottle Rocket” (1996) to “Isle of Dogs” (2018) has been winding, Turkish carpeted, and very often enchanting.
Now comes “The French Dispatch.” It’s easily the most mannered movie Anderson has made, which is really saying something. It’s so mannered at times as to be almost unmoored — speaking of ships — but the many marvels it contains make that an acceptable price to pay.
The full name of the movie gives a sense of this manneredness. It’s also the full name of the magazine that is the movie’s ostensible subject, “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.” The movie’s real subject is the blend of nostalgia, style, and decency that Anderson sees as having been The New Yorker magazine during its first half century or so and which he adores.
The French Dispatch is the magazine of the Harold Ross and William Shawn eras grafted on to the late, lamented International Herald Tribune newspaper. The IHT comes in because The French Dispatch is located in Paris — or as Anderson renames it, Ennui, which is situated on the Blasé rather than the Seine. Characters usually speak in English, but sometimes in French. Often it’s in the same scene. Go figure (or allez comprendre).
It’s 1975. Typewriters still clack, and cigarettes (lots of cigarettes) get smoked. The movie begins with the death of the magazine’s Ross-like founder and editor. Don’t worry, he will return several times in flashback. You’ll want him back, since he’s played by Bill Murray. Murray is one of many Anderson regulars on hand.
Chief among the filmmaker’s virtues is having created a recurring troupe worthy of comparison with Preston Sturges’s Ale & Quail Club. Here they include Owen Wilson, who as a Dispatch writer gives viewers a lively survey of Ennui via bicycle; Anjelica Huston, offering an introductory voice-over; Edward Norton, playing a nefarious chauffeur; and Adrien Brody, as a foul-mouthed art dealer.
Anderson has invited new guests to the party, too, but before getting to them the movie’s structure needs noting. It’s organized like a magazine issue, with most of its length consisting of three “feature articles.” So “The French Dispatch” is literally episodic: additional ships within additional bottles. But at times the movie feels episodic: beached ships in clouded bottles.
Two of the newcomers figure prominently in the first chapter, “The Concrete Masterpiece.” Benicio del Toro plays a painter who’s an inmate in the Ennui Prison Asylum. Léa Seydoux, as a guard, is his muse, model, and manager. Their scenes are in black and white. Tilda Swinton’s, as a Dispatch writer, are in color. The glorious auburn of Swinton’s upswept hairdo is a sight to see, if not as impressive as the upsweep itself. Is that Swinton’s own hair or a wig? Either way, hairspray must have had its own line in the budget, and all honor to Frances Hannon, who did hair and makeup.
Swinton’s character is inspired by the art lecturer Rosamond Bernier, not a New Yorker writer, though she was profiled in the magazine once. (You see how complicated things can get here.) The writer for the next chapter, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” is a version of Mavis Gallant, with Mary McCarthy’s haircut and a based-abroad echo of Janet Flanner and the great Jane Kramer. Frances McDormand plays her in high-steely mode.
“Concrete” sags some. “Revisions” sags a lot, though it does look terrific, in more black and white. It’s about ‘60s student protests. Their leader, Zeffirelli (yes, like the director), is played by another newcomer to the Anderson cinematic universe, Timothée Chalamet. He’s much better here than in “Dune” (also opening this week). Zeffirelli sports Eraserhead hair, a caterpillar mustache that’s barely fuzzy, and hangs out at Le Sans Blague Café (no kidding? no kidding).
“Revisions” includes the staging of a play. It takes place in a French army barracks, with Rupert Friend quite funny as a drill sergeant. Having an actual play on screen underscores how much the frame functions as a proscenium for Anderson. Walls open like scrims. Flats slide away to reveal a new tableau. An ongoing collision between staginess and, for lack of a better word, movie-ness (when Anderson wants to, he really can movie the camera) is central to his visual style.
There’s such a degree of stylization it’s easy to wonder if style really is all Anderson believes in. One reason that “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” the final feature, works best is the sense of humanity in it. Part of that is owing to the writer character, Roebuck Wright, who’s meant to be a cross between James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling. Melding those two sounds inconceivable, but Jeffrey Wright brings a combination of gravity and pained dignity to the role that makes it work.
Wright is at the prison to sample some penitentiary haute cuisine, and events take quite a turn. Beside having the most genuine emotion of the three episodes, this one is the most fun, right down to including an animation sequence.
That sense of humanity also has to do with the relationship between the commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and his young son, Gigi. That relationship is a nod to the one in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Quai des Orfèvres” (1947). “The French Dispatch” is almost as much a billet-doux to old French movies as it is to The New Yorker. Del Toro has the hirsute wildness of Michel Simon. The opening of “Concrete” bows to Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991). A “Dutch criminal mastermind” in “Commissioner” is a dead ringer for the director Jean-Pierre Melville. Not that you need to notice any of these things to enjoy “The French Dispatch.” You don’t even need to have ever read The New Yorker. You just need to keep afloat a belief in cinematic ships sailing within cinematic bottles.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH
Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman. Starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 108 minutes. R (nudity, sexual references, language), In English and, erratically, French, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.