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Wes Anderson’s ‘French Dispatch’ is an imitation of France. You may not want to visit

A bearded man flanked by guards stands behind bars
Benicio del Toro, center, flanked by Denis Menochet and Lea Seydoux in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.”
(Searchlight Pictures)

“Cannes isn’t France,” a French friend once told me in a brisk tone of airy disdain that was, in notable contrast, the very essence of France itself. “They put on a big show of being French and purist about it, but the whole thing is defined by the people who go there. It’s like Disneyland Paris with better clothes.” He wrinkled his nose to underscore his distaste, before dealing the most damning of killer blows. “Even the rosé is bad. Any French person will tell you.”

I’m not saying my friend is right. Cannes may or may not be France, but I’m always happy to be there regardless, and the rosé — so long as you steer clear of anything pinker than a bad sunburn — tastes just fine to me.

But I did think of his little tirade only a few minutes into “The French Dispatch,” the (very) long-awaited new divertissement from Wes Anderson, which premiered in competition at Cannes tonight, a little past the halfway mark of the festival. (Initially scheduled for release last summer from Searchlight, the film will now hit U.S. theaters in October.)

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As you might just glean from the title, it’s a film about France for viewers not overly attached to authentic standards of Frenchness and thus — or so my friend would say — the optimal film for the festival’s balmy coastal melting pot. Set in the fictional French town of (wait for it) Ennui-sur-Blasé, populated mostly by English-speaking Hollywood faces, and dressed entirely according to Anderson’s signature American-preppy principles — perhaps accessorized with a beret here and there — it’s a fantasy of Gallic elegance, eccentricity and ooh-la-la to make “Amelie” look like “La Haine.”

None of which is in itself a problem. As with the patchwork faux Europeanism of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or, more controversially, the miniaturized Japanophilia of his last feature, “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson practically specializes in attractive, magpie-spirited fakery. And it’s nothing if not the right kind of film to program midfestival, when those of us who have been watching up to half a dozen films per day on limited sleep and a diet of wine and pastry are starting to get a little bleary-eyed. Bracketed by more charged, challenging propositions like Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s whirling pandemic fantasia “Petrov’s Flu” or Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s quietly probing three-hour Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car,” a relatively short, jaunty little palate-cleanser like “The French Dispatch” goes down very easily.

Seven people dressed in formalwear stand on a red carpet
Cast and crew of “The French Dispatch” arrive at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere a year after the festival was canceled due to COVID-19.
(Valery Hache / AFP via Getty Images)

And yet, as Anderson’s ornate triptych of mini-capers unfolded before me, I found myself wishing I was having more fun. Fans of the director will find all the usual surface pleasures of his work fastidiously in place: immaculate, era-straddling production design preserved in the crystalline symmetry of his compositions, an A-plus-list ensemble of actors on droll, freewheeling form, and a spritzy jazz piano score (by the eminently French Alexandre Desplat) that immediately and insistently carves out space in your brain.

But I smiled more than I laughed and, if I’m being honest, I sighed more than I smiled. In Anderson’s best films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” among them, palpable human stakes lend ballast to all that hyper-controlled formal frippery; in his most disposable ones, the rueful strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” creep into mind.

Wholly familiar as it is in design and detail, “The French Dispatch” does represent something new for the 52-year-old filmmaker, deploying the same flighty anthology structure that the Coen Brothers recently tried to variable effect in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” On the face of it, that should be a good fit for Anderson, a filmmaker who has always been less a master storyteller than a supreme fashioner of story worlds. Here he gets to flit at his own distracted pace between well-appointed vignettes. The dispatch of the title is an American-staffed expatriate paper based in Ennui-sur-Blasé, overseen (of course) by a bumbling Bill Murray; an editorial features meeting yields the three tall tales that lend the film its nominal shape.

That they’re all various degrees of bonkers and/or bathetic is the joke, though it’s not always easy to distinguish between this more strenuously underlined absurdity and regular Wesworld whimsy. In the first, and funniest, of them, a gruff, imprisoned artist (Benicio Del Toro) sets a bourgeois gaggle of curators and collectors (including, most amusingly, a bouffant-haired, Barbara Walters-voiced Tilda Swinton) on a wild goose chase for a new collection of his alleged masterworks. The third, and shaggiest, traces the journalistic adventures of a gay Black writer and bon vivant (played with some louche wit by Jeffrey Wright) clearly modeled on James Baldwin — minus any of Baldwin’s political vigor and vinegar.

Our critic isn’t at the Cannes Film Festival this year, but “After Yang,” “Lingui” and “The Souvenir Part II” are among the strongest titles he’s seen.

We’ve already been primed for this tidy, neutered approach, however, by the second chapter, which serves up Anderson’s wholly depoliticized reimagining of the May ’68 student protests, as Timothée Chalamet’s pretty, vapid activist adopts utopian ideals via a formative May-December affair with caustic journalist Frances McDormand. The star pairing amuses; less so Anderson’s cutesy rewrite of path-breaking French history, in which the slogan of the revolution is given as “Les enfants son grognons” — translated as “The children are grumpy.”

Well, maybe I am too. No one looks to Wes Anderson, after all, for any kind of substantial statement on identity or history. For as long as “The French Dispatch” is very prettily on screen, this is his world and we’re just living in it. (Or looking at it, at least: Lord know where we could make ourselves at home without spoiling the decor scheme.) Still, to arrive in Cannes, a festival that was itself famously disrupted by the social and cultural unrest of 1968, with a sweet, chirpy film that reduces these events to a winking premise for some very lovely set dressing — well, it takes some gall. And not a whole lot of Gaul. Perhaps Cannes isn’t France after all.


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