The great Hollywood film composer David Raksin said it: “None of my music should ever be played for the first time, since it only confuses people.”
I’ve read several colleagues (those who traveled the festival circuit earlier this year) say something similar about Wes Anderson’s new film “The French Dispatch” — that it doesn’t benefit from a second viewing, it requires one, so elaborate is its visual construction and production detail. That’s another way of saying there’s a lot going on, and you won’t catch it all the first time.
But in his fastidious, exacting, extraordinarily blinkered creation, writer-director Anderson this time has driven straight into a cul-de-sac, stranding every sort of good and great actor in the cinematic equivalent of a design meeting.
Narratively “The French Dispatch” works like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (my favorite Anderson film, from 2014) if “The Grand Budapest Hotel” unfolded itself and refolded into an odder, more daunting shape. This film grew from Anderson’s love of The New Yorker magazine, and his boyhood fascination with its far-flung correspondents, cartoons and — especially — the film critic Pauline Kael. The movie imagines a French bureau of the (fictional) Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper teeming with literary aspirations and prickly, difficult, worthwhile writers under contract.
BIll Murray plays the stern editor, whose funeral provides the framing device: the publication of the magazine’s final issue. The three tales told in “The French Dispatch” visualize three different magazine stories. In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” an imprisoned, murderous artist (Benicio del Toro) and his model/prison guard (Lea Seydoux) create a scandal and an art-world outrage.
In “Revisions to a Manifesto,” the heady rebellion of 1960s Paris is transformed into a fable about raw youth and exquisite teen pretension and heartbreak, with Timothee Chalamet leading the ensemble as a faux-Marxist revolutionary and Frances McDormand as the magazine writer and, discreetly, the student’s lover.
The final third of the film’s omnibus structure works best, if only because Jeffrey Wright is marvelous as a James Baldwin-inspired expatriate. (A.J. Liebling, author of the real-life, detested-in-Chicago magazine piece “Chicago: The Second City,” is another credited influence on the Wright character.) The story titled “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” barely coheres, telling a tale of child kidnapping and a wizard of a chef. But Wright manages to find precise and telling nonverbal moments of introspection, cutting through the filmmaker’s dioramas.
The imagined town of Ennui-sur-Blase can’t be faulted in terms of inventive construction. Anderson pulls from decades of film history for inspiration: Rouben Mamoulian’s backlot Paris in “Love Me Tonight”; Jacques Tati’s multistory dollhouse of an apartment building in “Mon Oncle”; the interiors of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”; and so much more. There are genuine amusements along the way: Owen Wilson’s disappearing-bike gag, for example.
There are some charming conceits, and this is one of the filmmaker’s most consciously gag-centered works. It may take a second go to figure out more fully why it struck me as theoretically funny rather than funny in practice, and why it murmurs rather than sings.
The footnotes and detours and bracketing devices whirl around an increasingly frayed through-line. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the nesting-doll technique felt like it meant something, no little thanks to Ralph Fiennes (in one of the great, bittersweet comic turns in recent movies). Here it amounts to a lot more in one way — in sheer pictorial cleverness— and a lot less in others. Among other problems: Is this really all Anderson has to say about the artist-and-muse mythology? Seydoux, staring down the camera, an objectified nude cipher?