Film and TV

In a Scale of Wes Andersonness, How Wes Anderson-y Is The French Dispatch?

How Wes Andersony is Wes Anderson's new film The French Dispatch?
How Wes Andersony is Wes Anderson's new film The French Dispatch? Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Every celebrated filmmaker has a signature style. If it weren’t for Carl Jung, Woody Allen could’ve claimed the Electra complex as his own invention. Other persistently recurring themes commonly found among Allen's films include self-aware neuroticism and montages of New York scenes backdropped by jazz and no people of color. Director Sophia Coppola, too, loves a young, white ingénue, but her films focus on their coming-of-age woes and sexual awakenings that play out to lo-fi rock tunes in uncomfortably naïf settings.

Quentin Tarantino movies traditionally follow a standard format: absurd violence interposed with shots of women’s feet and snappy dialogue soundtracked by surf rock and ‘60s pop. Guillermo del Toro owns the concept of elaborate ghoulish fantasy.

Likewise, accomplished Texas writer/director Wes Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable, imitated and parodied styles in pop culture. The director’s intricate, whimsical aesthetic is renowned for its big-budget-but-make-it-look-indie, every-frame-looks-like-a-postcard quirky visuals. It's so well-known that  “Accidentally Wes Anderson” is a popular hashtag and Instagram account, where people identify locations reminiscent of the director’s hallmark look: architecture featuring overly ornate designs — or else, cartoonisly simple structures that could've been drawn by a child — in pastel or bold, bright colors with pleasing symmetry and vintage details.

Picture a movie with symmetrical framing. Add offbeat characters, colorful sets, Bill Murray and one or both of the Wilson brothers. Toss in a legion of hipster baristas ready to defend it as a work of genius. That is the work, any work, of Wes Anderson. The filmmaker is known for his distinctly peculiar brand of whimsy, and his filtered, color-graded vision, constant casting of fetish actors and vignettes highlighting dollhouse-simple objects (such as binoculars) — all of which have made him a singular voice in filmmaking for the past quarter decade.


Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, hits theaters Oct. 22, but Dallas audiences got the chance to check it out already thanks to a preview screening at the Dallas International Film Festival. Anderson’s latest is a tribute to the power of journalism and tells the story of an editor (Bill Murray, of course) and his loyal staff of writers. It's expected to be a major awards contender this fall festival season.

To promote The French Dispatch, the film’s marketers at Searchlight Pictures went for an Anderson-approved bit of unorthodoxy through guerrilla advertising and reached out to Dallas artist Shamsy to create an online video inspired by Anderson's Art Nouveau, big-bag-o’-quirky aesthetic.

Shamsy shared a video in which she’s reading a pamphlet for the film, after putting on red velvet gloves for the sake of fancifulness, while sipping tea in a cup and saucer adorned with small animals, that sits next to binoculars and a notebook scrawled with words in cursive.
“Wes Anderson films are golden not only in atmospheric color tones but also in storytelling, nostalgic details, textures and perfectionist shots,” Shamsy tells the Observer of how she achieved the Anderson look.

We decided to see how The French Dispatch's overall Wes Andersonness stacks up against Anderson’s other films, but not necessarily in terms of quality; we’re looking at how in line the new Anderson film is when measured by the Anderson-Quirkometer™.


10. Bottle Rocket
Compared with Anderson’s other films, his crime comedy 1996 debut is almost a serious neo-noir. Sure, you get a lot of fun dialogue from the Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke, because again, it's Wes Anderson!), but the lower budget meant the filmmaker wasn’t able to spend as much on his elaborate production design, so the Wes Anderson aesthetic has not reached its potential. Also, no Bill Murray! The Wilsons star as a pair of outlaws; Luke is a former mental patient and Owen is an aspiring bank robber. Neither is too bright (unlike Anderson’s typical hyper-cultured characters). Anderson’s films can get violent in a "cute" sense (think Amélie Poulain from the impossibly cute French hit 2001 film Amélie breaking into her bully grocer neighbor's apartment to teach him a lesson by messing with the order of his stuff), but they’ve never topped the Reservoir Dogs intensity of his debut.

9. Isle of Dogs
OK, we’re already jumping heavily into the Anderson quirk zone with a movie that’s an eccentric bedtime story made with stop-motion animation. This one ranks a little lower, because we’re not so sure about Anderson’s depiction of a foreign fight for independence was best served as one of his “quirky misadventures.” Here you have a band of dogs (each with their own idiosyncrasies and matching tags), so Anderson checks off his usual “gang of weirdos” hallmark. However, the corrupt Japanese government is a little less “fun” than the usual obstacles to be overcome in his other lighthearted stories.

8. The Darjeeling Limited

This comedy set on a luxury train in India has Anderson's signature goofiness, but it's a little more openly earnest than we’d expect from the King of Irony. When Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody all literally unload and throw aside their baggage in a scene, we collapse under the weight of the unsubtle metaphor. Anderson likes to present each of his film's environments with characteristic detail and wacky side characters. This one gets a little uncomfortable with its three American idiots exploring the “eccentricity” of India during their luxury train ride.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Unquestionably, Anderson’s first animated feature is what you show your kids if you want them to get an early interest in art school. However, the subtle dark jokes Anderson usually hides are absent in the Roald Dahl adaptation. We’re talking about Wes Anderson, the guy who tells stories about cynical, depressed characters recovering from childhood trauma. It’s a little strange when they’re animals.

6. Moonrise Kingdom

For a guy who likes to tell stories of overgrown men-children with a serious case of arrested development, it's surprising to see a story from Anderson about actual children. Still, all of the grown up characters in the film are about as clueless as ever. One of Anderson’s signature moves is his downright antipathy toward optimism. Moonrise Kingdom reflects that quality, as it's more or less Romeo and Juliet for 12-year-olds.

5. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

This amount of Bill Murray is almost strange. We’re used to just a taste of Murray, or a dash of Murray in the background. But an Anderson movie with Bill Murray as the lead? It's like the dessert becoming a meal. Murray has been in nine of Anderson’s 10 films, and the comedy star of the ‘80s and ‘90s has the perfectly blunt, unemotional attitude that fits Anderson’s frank dialogue. He usually gets supporting parts, but the self-obsessed ship captain Steve Zissou is the film’s title character. This film gets the middle place ranking whether you view Anderson's films as Bill Murray-half-empty or Bill Murray-half-full. We're just not comfortable with this level of Bill Murraying in an Anderson movie.

4. Rushmore

Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer, an overachiever who goes overboard trying to please a select crowd, is about as close to self-aware as Anderson has ever been. Like Tarantino's or Christopher Nolans’ ardent followers, Anderson’s fans are completely dedicated to his flashy artwork and often decorate their rooms as tribute. Fischer almost feels like Anderson parodying his own audience.

3. The French Dispatch
Anderson’s 2021 project explores each of the film's stories individually, so as a result you get five separate stories of disparate weirdos caught in increasingly wacky situations. Five Anderson fables for the price of one! Anderson also likes to make his stories seem more eccentric through non-sequiturs, and given its nature as an anthology, The French Dispatch never stays with one plot line for too long.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums
Gene Hackman’s last major star vehicle gives Anderson’s third feature a slightly different quality, but his brilliant 2001 film covers the same themes he’s been tackling for years: loneliness, sibling rivalry, unfulfilled affection, bickering, underappreciated artistry. This one isn’t even forcing us to deal with Adrien Brody. Once again, Anderson wants us to relate to weirdos who have “challenging” personal issues. Are we ever going to forget the romance between the adopted siblings Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums? And while we're asking questions: Are we going to keep ignoring the similarities between the Tenenbaums and the Glass family from J.D. Salinger's books?

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
This is the most Wes Andersony movie that’s ever Wes Andersoned. The international story boasts the most locations of any Anderson vehicle, but it's also his most poignant, a tribute to the lost grace of an older era, which is crushed under the weight of fascism. That grace comes in the form of Ralph Fiennes’ slick M. Gustav, the operator of a grand (but equally idiosyncratic) hotel, who also beds 90-year-old ladies. Hey, we’ll take what we can get. Gustav’s hotel houses many offbeat inhabitants, and Anderson makes it even quirkier (yay!) by making sure we know that it’s a story within a story within a story. Gustav’s adventures are told by his young lobby boy (Tony Revolri) as an older man (F. Murray Abraham) to an author (Jude Law) who writes the stories again as an older man (Tom Wilkinson). George R. R. Martin could never get this complex. 
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.