The French Dispatch, 2021.
Directed by Wes Anderson.
Starring Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Jeffrey Wright, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton and Lyna Khoudri.
A series of stories taken from the pages of an eclectic newspaper, tracing student protests, prison art and a high-stakes kidnapping attempt.
Wes Anderson is arguably the most distinctive filmmaker working today. Every single one of his movies is unmistakably his, from the opening titles to the closing credits. Whether it’s the symmetry of his frames, the pastel colours or those whimsical scores – often by Alexandre Desplat – you’re always aware that what you’re watching is something truly Andersonian. That’s definitely true of The French Dispatch – an amiable meander through an anthology of stories, connected to the titular newspaper.
Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) is the paper’s editor, with a “no crying” rule in his office and a fiercely protective attitude to his writers, including Sazerac (Owen Wilson), Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) and Krementz (Frances McDormand). The movie unfolds as a series of stories written by the journalists, including a tale of student protests fronted by louche teenager Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and the story of prison artist Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) being groomed for painterly success.
Even by Anderson’s standards, this is spectacularly frothy stuff. It’s a deeply pleasant viewing experience – absolutely gorgeous to look at and moving at enough of a pace that it’s always watchable. However, there’s a sense throughout that every single moment is utterly disposable. The stakes are so low at every turn – even when situations are supposedly life and death – that it’s difficult to fully invest in any of the characters. Even if you did, they’re often only on screen for a few minutes and the movie is largely uninterested in their fates.
Of course, Anderson has attracted an ensemble of actors at the top of their game, adding the likes of Chalamet and Elisabeth Moss to his increasingly swelling ranks of regular collaborators. It’s difficult to think of many other directors in Hollywood who could get a performer like Saoirse Ronan to play a thankless, under-written cameo. None of these cast members ever really get a chance to stamp their authority on the movie and, given their lack of screen time, they feel like thumbnail sketches and caricatures rather than rounded humans.
The film is the very definition of style over substance, but there are few who can provide style as substantial as Anderson. Wide, doll house shots of entire buildings are present and correct, along with ingenious touches such as the front façade of a café being physically moved out of the way. The travelogue style of the storytelling is designed in such a way that it’s entirely possible – and probably even advisable – to just enjoy the pretty pictures and the occasional flickers of wry comedy.
In many ways, The French Dispatch is the cinematic equivalent of an elegant cake from one of those shops which feels it can charge exorbitant fees just because the name on the sign outside is in curly writing. It’s a delight to look at and tastes very pleasant on the way down. But equally, it’s over before you get your money’s worth and, in the end, it’s just empty calories. You certainly wouldn’t want to eat it every day.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.