The French Dispatch, 2021.
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson.
Starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Timothée Chalamet, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Lyna Khoudri, Steve Park, Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Lois Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori, Rupert Friend, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Hippolyte Girardot, Anjelica Huston, Denis Ménochet, Alex Lawther, Vincent Lacoste, Benjamin Lavernhe, Vincent Macaigne, Félix Moati, Wallace Wolodarsky, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, and Stéphane Bak.
A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional twentieth-century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch Magazine”.
Writer and director Wes Anderson takes his whimsical humor and quirks to the format of what is essentially an anthology film. Centered on an American newspaper publication operating out of the fictional Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, The French Dispatch uses the structure of a remembrance magazine for its now-deceased founder Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). Celebrating the warm and fair editor (who does not allow crying in his office), the staff (comprised of major glorified cameos including the likes of Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, and others) decide that this final issue should consist of a small greatest hits of stories concluding with a farewell. In between those stories, there are several segments of Arthur amusingly interacting with writers in ways that might only resonate with actual journalists, that nonetheless get to the heart of why this man (who is based on the New Yorker’s Harold Ross) mattered to them as a mentor and person.
The anthology structure almost feels as if Wes Anderson (working on the narrative with Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Hugo Guinness) is being freed from shackles. He’s less concerned with plot this time around, using his love letter to writers as free reign to let his visually playful mind run amok. The French Dispatch is an overpowering fire on the senses, whether from rat-a-tat, witty dialogue exchanges, or undeniably striking shot compositions (often of his trademark symmetrical wide-angle variety) that are packed with background characters bringing the frame further to life. Utilizing a 4:3 ratio, Wes Anderson (coordinating with regular DP Robert D. Yeoman) also flips between black-and-white photography and luscious colors, live-action to animation, and stories within stories, all of such vibrancy that even subtitles have their own personality splashed across the screen in order or style carrying synchronized meaning to the character speaking them. Basically, Wes Anderson is a kid that bought the candy store after going inside.
It’s easy to imagine someone having trouble keeping up with the frenetic storytelling here, but it’s not a bother considering that every shot is meticulously crafted to elicit a reaction, whether it be awe-inspiring or silly fun. The first of four chapters is also used for Owen Wilson’s cyclist travelogue writer Herbsaint Sazerac to detour the fictional village, showing off the culture, activities, sights, and multiple groups of people (honest and seedy). The French Dispatch works the same as a cinematic experience; you can sit back and just get lost in the beauty and zaniness of it all while still picking up the gist of each story. That’s also not a wrong approach to a first viewing; let it overwhelm you and then go back for subsequent watches to unpack each story’s layers further.
As for those disconnected entities, they vary in quality, as to be expected from an anthology. In that regard, it is somewhat unfortunate that The French Dispatch peaks with its first editorial (discounting Owen Wilson introducing the time and place), which sees Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L Berensen recounting from a podium the tale of a murderous convict named Moses Rosenthaler (a growling Benicio del Toro, and also portrayed by Tony Revolori in his youth) who finds a muse in beautiful prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), painting nude portraits of her that go viral in the art world. Specifically, the paintings draw interest from career criminal Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody). What ensues is partially a hilarious satire on the moral leniency allowed towards toxic male artists as Moses suddenly becomes an incarcerated celebrity take advantage of for profit. It’s also a strangely endearing romance. There’s enough here to wish it was the focus of a full-length movie, with areas and characters that could have been developed further. However, it eventually leads to some black-and-white slapstick comedy antics and a clever payoff balancing things out.
The following two stories progressively yield diminishing results, focusing on politics (featuring a turn from Timothée Chalamet tapping into wacky energy and a deadly game of chess) and another that starts as a profile on a chef that turns into a ludicrous kidnapping situation. Again, they are packed with notable cameos and an onslaught of stylistic flourish but never reach the height of intrigue as the prison story. If anything, without much actual connective tissue, The French Dispatch begins to wear one down during its final story, tonally coming dangerously close to nothing but style. Still, there’s enough weirdness in both (two characters sleeping with each other that you would never expect) with asides on journalistic professionalism and ruminations on life (Jeffrey Wright is granted the best scene in the entire movie).
As a whole, The French Dispatch does arrive at a sobering epilogue as the writers say their goodbyes to Arthur. We also understand what he meant to them and come away feeling the joy found from writing these bizarre stories. It needs a repeat viewing or two to absorb fully, which is also a desire once the credits roll. Scenes and shots wash over you and sometimes inundate you, but not without wanting to understand every frame in all their imaginative and vibrant grandeur.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com