The French Dispatch isn't the "best" Wes Anderson movie, and it's maybe not even the "most" Wes Anderson movie. But I do think it might well be the most "fuck you" Wes Anderson movie, the one where you are either going to follow modern American cinema's fussiest and most aesthetically controlling director where he is interested in going, or you are going to slam into the movie like a brick wall. Even by the standards of a highly aestheticised career, The French Dispatch is a film that is, first and foremost, about aesthetics, and while I do not think, as do the film's (and the director's) most vocal detractors, that it completely sacrifices humanity to get there, even the human element is subsumed to style: as far as I can tell (and this is a movie that is much too giddily dense for me to feel confident in my reactions to a first viewing), the main idea the film wants to explore is what it actually means to have an aesthetic experience.

The way it gets to this point is already hiding within the full onscreen title, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Which, in turn, is the full name of a magazine within the film, a kind of weird expatriate version of The New Yorker that runs literary nonfiction and thinkpieces out of its offices in Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, while officially being headquartered in the small southeastern Kansas town (which seems to be an error, maybe a deliberate one: a very quick dialogue reference suggests that Liberty is the closest town to the geographic center of the lower 48 United States, i.e. the most insulated part of America. The actual town to hold that distinction is Lebanon, in north-central Kansas). The film's subject is France as seen through pop culture by a besotted foreigner who never for a second pretends that his vision is anything but an artificial construct, art papering over the messiness of life; it is Anderson's tribute to American Francofilia inspired by watching French art movies, in essence, and if any American filmmaker is in a good position to do that, it's the man whose early career was basically a series of Truffaut riffs occasionally leavened by a Rohmer riff.

The plot is based on the same kind of brightly melancholic look backwards as Anderson's last two live-action films, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom and 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel: the film opens on the demise of its titular subject, as the death sometime in the 1970s of the magazine's only editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) brings about the requirement in his will that The French Dispatch dies with him. We then skip back to when Howitzer was still alive, as he ponders how to fit three overlong articles into one issue, along with a short travel article. The movie that follows is an anthology, looking at each of those four articles. First, shortest, and worst is "The Cycling Tour", in which Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) bikes around Ennui, situating some of its more sordid corners in the ebb and flow of history and using sheer force of will to make them beautiful geometric arrangements of buildings, streets, and bodies (and if there's a better stand in for the movie's style, and Anderson's career, than "even the ugly things are beautifully precise and pristine", I cannot imagine what it is). Then come the main stories: "The Concrete Masterpiece", recounted by French Dispatch author J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) giving a lecture back in Liberty some time after the article's publication; it's the story of a criminally insane prisoner, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro, and briefly Tony Revolori as a youth) who is hyped up as the next big thing in Modernism by desperate gallery owner Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), on the strength of one painting of his muse, prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux); "Revisions to a Manifesto", which we watch as it is composed and, in part, precipitated by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), as she embeds herself in a feckless student revolution to profile the semi-charismatic head of the revolutionaries, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet); and "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner", recalled in perfect detail by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he's interviewed on some indescribably tacky-looking '70s chat show; it's meant to be an article about the extraordinarily gifted chef Lt. Nescaffier (Steven Park) of the Ennui police, whose work is mainly limited to preparing exquisite meals for the commissaire (Matthieu Amalric), but it swiftly turns into a sprawling, violent, and partially-animated tale of a kidnapping.

All well and good, and there are some very fine jokes squirreled away within all three stories, alongside an unfairly overstuffed cast: names I haven't mentioned include Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Lois Smith, Christoph Waltz, Cécile de France, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, and the voice of Anjelica Huston. And that's skipping over Lyna Khoudri on the grounds that she's not famous in the U.S., even though she's got a pretty big part and gives one of the film's stronger performance. Part of the reason for not mentioning these actors is that many of them have very tiny roles (Ronan barely delivers one full sentence), but when one has a bench as deep as Anderson, one might as well use it. One of the most consistent skills of his career, going back to at least his second feature, Rushmore, is to use a combination of well-chosen faces and detailed costuming to give us a very swift and distinct sense of characters even if we only see them for a moment or two, and there's a sense in which he's starting to get to cheat, by having terribly famous people provide those faces; whatever, it works.

But the cast per se matters less than how the cast is symptomatic of the film's bigger thing, which is to be a profoundly overstuffed object. I have seen Anderson films that moved me more than this, but I have never seen one that exhausted me quite this way; these are the most fussy, heavily-detailed sets of Anderson's career, and he's filming them in a way that makes it feel like he wants us to try and look at literally every detail, literally all at once. While Anderson's French film touchstones have always been the New Wave - and there is unmistakably some Godard in "Revisions to a Manifesto" (whether it's an homage to late-'60s Godard or a parody of late-'60s Godard, I can't entirely say. What is clear, at least, is that Anderson admires Godard's ultra-political films for their aesthetic radicalism while finding their futile politics at least a little silly, and this seems to me precisely the correct attitude to hold) - the French filmmaker who is clearly at play most here is Jacques Tati: early in the film, there's a shot of a man climbing up a multistory building shown in extreme wide shot that's impossible to read as anything but a deliberate Tati homage, and the way that the rest of the film is constructed geometrically feels far more like Tati than anything in the New Wave. And honestly, what it feels like most of all to me is Ozu Yasujiro, a filmmaker who has not one blessed thing to do with France at all; but the mechanics of how The French Dispatch has been pieced together puts me in mind of nothing else.

For The French Dispatch is, at least in part, and maybe even predominately, an exploration of how to move a viewer through images, and how to manipulate those images during the shot and across the cut. I hope it does not sound like a criticism if I call it "mechanical" - it is downright thrilling in its mechanisms, I think. The notion of the film is that each of the three stories is told in a different register by a very different narrator - Swinton as a blowsy drunk rattling her way through a borderline-incoherent lecture, McDormand mirthlessly tapping her way through a story of militants in need of discipline, Wright warmly purring through charming memories that clearly trigger somewhat distant, sad memories - and to some extent this is what happens. The tone of the writing and acting are certainly very different in each of the segments, and different still in the wraparound sequences set in the magazine offices. And there are specific stylistic techniques only seen in one of the segments - dolly shots in the first, sets literally rolling away like live theater in the second, animation in the third, to name three.

But there's also a degree to which the film's style rigidly unifies the three disparate stories: the hand of a strong chief editor, we might say. The French Dispatch feels a bit like an experiment in seeing what happens when certain stylistic parameters are locked down, forcing the rest of the style to operate within those parameters. So we get, most noticeably, unyielding square camera angles: every static shot is positioned at a right angle to the walls of the room within it, every tracking shot is exactly parallel to the camera lens or exactly perpendicular to it, and every camera pan moves 90 degrees, meaning that there are functionally only four possible angles in any space (this is what reminded me of Ozu most, and even he allowed himself eight angles). Most of the film is in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the better to emphasize the symmetry of the compositions, or allow the asymmetrical compositions to stand out - the exceptions to this aspect ratio often involves laying two or more 1.37:1 frames next to each other against an empty black field.

So within that hard, unbending limit, the film wanders. It's not interested at all in constructing a single, consistent reality: the student revolutionaries exist in a world that proudly announces itself as a construction on a soundstage, and when Revolori hands off his role to Del Toro, this is literally done by having the older actor walk into frame, give a pleasant nod to the younger, and sit in his chair. Mostly, it's shot in black and white, but some shots are in color (at least one shot turns from one to the other in the middle); sometimes it seems like there's a pattern to this, but sometimes it surely must be arbitrary.

Is there a "why" to this? Maybe - The French Dispatch is dense as hell, and I simply accept as given that I missed things. But I kind of feel like the better answer is "it doesn't matter". The film's stories are all about the function of aesthetics in life (the middle one more implicitly than the others, and perhaps only if you agree to the notion that student radicalism is an aesthetic), the framing narrative is about finding a way to force a rigid structure on those aesthetics and make them fit together as one unified "thing". Part of the pleasure of The French Dispatch, and for me even the greatest part, was the feeling that the film was constantly asking me to reflect on my moment-by-moment reaction to this - this camera movement, this shift in color, this posed actor, this set decoration?" It is constantly testing how the viewer feels about the purpose of having beautiful aesthetics in life - a needless indulgence, a useful corrective to suffering, the only point to being alive at all. I don't really know if there's more to it than that, just showing beautiful images to us, and asking, "so, what do you think?" Perhaps there is, but perhaps there also doesn't have to be.