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Elyse DurhamJanuary 21, 2022
Bill Murray and Jeffrey Wright in ‘The French Dispatch’ (Fox Searchlight)Bill Murray and Jeffrey Wright in ‘The French Dispatch’ (Fox Searchlight)

There exists in the popular imagination a misconception that the filmmaker Wes Anderson is a man of style over substance. Search for his name, and you will soon be lost in a deluge of parodies, homage and outright send-ups, all featuring his signature aesthetic: bold colors, retro accouterments and a rollicking 1960s soundtrack.

These caricatures aren’t exactly wrong: Being a character in a Wes Anderson movie does make you more likely to own a typewriter, wear a fur coat and drown your ennui in The Kinks. But there is much more to Anderson’s aesthetic than a penchant for mid-century style. Like any good storyteller (as an auteur, Anderson writes as well as directs his films), Anderson matches his mode to his subject; his films are drenched in nostalgia, and his characters are stuck in the past.

Like any good storyteller, Anderson matches his mode to his subject; his films are drenched in nostalgia, and his characters are stuck in the past.

Most everyone in Anderson’s 10 films longs for some sort of glory days gone by. The teenaged Max Fischer wants to become a permanent student at Rushmore Academy. The has-been Steve Zissou longs for the prime of his youth. The adult Tenenbaum siblings move back in with their mother in search of the security of childhood. All of them are, in one way or another, stuck—until something (or someone) arrives to shock them out of their complacency. Max Fischer gains courage through friendship; Steve Zissou grows up through the loss of a son; the Tenenbaums hit rock bottom and then, finding love there, are transformed.

Anderson’s latest, “The French Dispatch,” is no departure stylistically. Fans in search of a cinematic escape will not be disappointed; with its maximalist leanings, “The French Dispatch” seems tailor-made for those of us who spent the last two years wearily watching Netflix from home. Following the lives and work of a team of expatriate journalists, it is stuffed to the gills with storylines (five), settings (dozens) and characters (upwards of 300). Extraordinarily detailed set pieces and ’60s-era pop music abound.

And so, of course, does nostalgia. No one in “The French Dispatch” is quite at home in their world, or with themselves. But there is something different at work here: Unlike Anderson’s previous heroes, the cast of “The French Dispatch” does not long for the past; they yearn for a reality that has never existed. Young revolutionaries attempt an upheaval of social norms. An unmarried woman-journalist-of-a-certain-age wishes to be seen as a professional instead of an object of pity.

No one in “The French Dispatch” is quite at home in their world, or with themselves.

Most striking of all is Rosenthaler, a convicted murderer who is living out his days in the psychiatric ward of a prison. “I’ve been here 3,647 days and nights. Another 14,603 to go,” Rosenthaler says. “I drink fourteen pints of mouthwash ration per week. At that rate, I’m going to poison myself to death before I ever see the world again, which makes me feel—very sad.” Though Rosenthaler has known little but addiction, mental illness and despair, he suspects there is more to life than this—though he does not know why, and unlike the Tenenbaums and Max Fischer, he does not know how to find it.

Perhaps as a reflection of this thematic shift, “The French Dispatch” takes Anderson’s aesthetic and turns it inside out. Gone are the typical candy-colored hues: Rosenthaler’s story, along with the bulk of the film, is shown in black and white, which reinforces the monotony and emptiness he feels. Any of us who remember the isolation and interminability of lockdown (and who doesn’t!) can relate to this experience of colorlessness.

But, like every Anderson film before it, “The French Dispatch” is optimistic at its heart. Its characters are not left to languish, but are brought back to life by startling moments of grace. Hope comes twice to Rosenthaler, first in the form of Simone, the beautiful and elusive prison guard with whom he falls in love. When Simone rejects his affection, Rosenthaler then turns his passion to painting, still inspired by her loveliness. “What do you want to paint?” Simone asks. “The future,” Rosenthaler says, “which is you.” Rosenthaler’s canvases appear on screen in vivid color, blazing pinks and reds and oranges made all the brighter for their contrast to the grayness of the prison.

Perhaps this is why Wes Anderson’s work resounds so strongly in the popular imagination: we all long for homes to which we cannot return.

Anderson uses this “Wizard of Oz”-like device several times in the film, jumping from black and white to color and then back again. Most often, these shots capture sensual experiences: a noisy coffee shop bustling with students, a tryst between young lovers and an exceptionally good meal are all filmed in color. Each depicts a key moment in a character’s life, a moment when beauty unexpectedly bursts in and changes them forever—akin to what J. R. R. Tolkien described as a “eucatastrophe.” To see these sudden flashes of color is like walking through a museum and encountering a vivid religious painting or icon that stops you dead in your tracks, providing an experience of beauty so acute (and realer than our reality) that it almost feels like pain—like nostalgia.

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek algia, or pain, and nostos, to return home—suggesting, as Anderson’s characters often experience, the impossibility of going home again, of living in exile. Toward the end of “The French Dispatch,” a heroic cook, lying wounded after the rescue of a kidnapped child, articulates this feeling when he describes being an expatriate. “Seeking something missing,” he says. “Missing something left behind.” The journalist at his bedside, himself an expatriate and social outcast, can relate. “Maybe, with good luck,” the journalist says, “we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”

Even before Covid-19, we were all exiles in this world, hungry to return to a goodness and beauty lost in the Fall. Now, with the threat of illness and death still looming nearly two years into the pandemic and a future without Covid becoming harder to imagine, we might experience nostalgia more acutely than ever. Perhaps that’s why Wes Anderson’s work resounds so strongly in the popular imagination: We all long for homes to which we cannot return.

In one eerily prescient moment of “The French Dispatch,”which was written and filmed years before Covid-19, a woman who has lived through a revolution longs for normalcy. “What will normal reality be?” she wonders. “Next week, next month, whenever, if ever, we get to experience it again. Anyone’s guess.”

Anyone’s guess indeed. But as long as we look for the icons in this world, and in each other—and as long as there are people like Wes Anderson to remind us of them—we will always find a place to call home.

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