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Wes Anderson doubles-down on his unique schtick with 'The French Dispatch'

AFP logo AFP 6/18/2021 AFP
Adrien Brody wearing sunglasses: Timothee Chalamet joins the Anderson for the first time, while Adrien Brody is a long-time fixture. © Valery HACHE Timothee Chalamet joins the Anderson for the first time, while Adrien Brody is a long-time fixture.

Self-obsessed guys with daddy issues, maps, models and handwritten letters, probably some 1960s rock and definitely Bill Murray deadpanning -- you know immediately whose universe you're in.

"Wes Anderson is here tonight... He arrived on a bicycle made of antique tuba parts," joked Amy Poehler, hosting the Golden Globes a few years back. 

And everyone knew what she meant, because no one in film history has been so unblinkingly wedded to a specific off-beat vibe -- from early successes like "The Royal Tenenbaums" through hits like "Fantastic Mr Fox" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- as the Texas-born director. 

Benicio Del Toro wearing a suit and tie: Benicio Del Toro plays a criminally insane artist in the new film. © Valery HACHE Benicio Del Toro plays a criminally insane artist in the new film.

Anderson's new film "The French Dispatch", which premiered Monday at Cannes, takes his style to even more surreal limits, crammed with ornate and madcap imagery in an incredibly elaborate ode to expat journalists and France. 

"Wes is only getting more Wes-like. (His first films) 'Bottle Rocket' and 'Rushmore' are practically naturalistic compared to where he's at now. Where will it end?" said Sophie Monks Kaufman, who wrote a book about him, "Close Ups: Wes Anderson".

Bill Murray wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd: Bill Murray has appeared in almost every Anderson flick, and is joined this time by French-Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri. © CHRISTOPHE SIMON Bill Murray has appeared in almost every Anderson flick, and is joined this time by French-Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri.

It has been a long wait for "The French Dispatch", which was due to open at last year's Cannes festival before it was cancelled by the pandemic. 

But the early reviews were gushing on Monday, with The Telegraph calling it his best film ever and "relentlessly wonderful", though IndieWire's Eric Kohn warned it "may divide people as it is, in blunt terms, very Wes Anderson."

- Award drought -

That singular approach has earned Anderson total creative control and an ever-growing menagerie of megastars eager to join his famously convivial sets. 

Sandro Kopp, Wes Anderson standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Tilda Swinton appears in her fourth Anderson film, alongside first-timer Timothee Chalamet. © John MACDOUGALL Tilda Swinton appears in her fourth Anderson film, alongside first-timer Timothee Chalamet.

Timothee Chalamet and Benicio del Toro are the latest additions, and joined him on the Cannes red carpet along with Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton and Adrien Brody. 


Video: Wes Anderson returns in Cannes with his 10th feature "The French Dispatch" (France 24)

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"They do his films because it's fun," British critic Dorian Lynskey told AFP. "He's not a difficult guy and yet has that total aesthetic that you normally associate with difficult directors."

The adulation has not translated into many awards -- Anderson has seven Oscar nominations but zero trophies -- perhaps because he seems to exist in a parallel world to the rest of the film industry. 

Asked by Entertainment Weekly if he cared about awards, Anderson's own response was: "I would if I won more!"

- Broken families -

"The French Dispatch" shows Anderson heading away from some of the more serious issues that cut through his early films. 

He has cited his parents' divorce when he was eight as the defining moment of his childhood, and broken families have been a recurrent theme in his work. 

He has returned often to his childhood: filming in his own high school in Houston for "Rushmore", paying homage to youthful infatuations with explorer Jacques Cousteau ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") and Roald Dahl ("Fantastic Mr Fox"). 

"He seems particularly nostalgic about the age of 12," writes Kaufman. "Wes can remember what it was like to be at that age and overwhelmed by a romantic crush, or when a book could become your whole world."

- 'My own handwriting' -

Many find it all too twee. The winking irony and taste for analogue make him practically the definition of modern hipsterism: "Your barista's favourite director," as one YouTube parody put it.

The style has leaked all over contemporary culture, from home decor to Gucci ads to countless films such as "Paddington" and "Lady Bird". 

It has spawned a hit Instagram account of real-life things that ought to be in his films, "Accidentally Wes Anderson", the director's personal favourite being a Croatian pancake stand.

This points to the fact that Anderson is not a cult figure, Kaufman told AFP: "He is too influential for that. He's more like his own cottage industry, and has been so successful at it that he doesn't have to woo the establishment or make a Marvel movie."

Having built his world, he seems content in it. 

"There were times when I thought I should change my approach, but in fact, this is what I like to do," Anderson told NPR. 

"It's sort of like my handwriting as a movie director. And somewhere along the way, I think I've made the decision: I'm going to write in my own handwriting."

er/mbx

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