I’m so glad that Wes Anderson exists. It makes me so very happy that this flame-haired Texan is out there. In an industry landscape dominated by an assembly line of corporate-mandated comic book clones brought into being primarily to function as an advertisement for the next clone, here proudly stands a filmmaker with an intensely unique and personal vision, bringing a refreshing level of care and idiosyncrasy to each blessedly standalone project he attempts. Succeed or not–and he has more often than not–I’m always glad that he tries.
In Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch, the writer-director crafts his most fastidious and elaborate work yet: A loving ode to The New Yorker periodical and the golden age of journalism. Structurally, the film is broken up into four separate stories, each told by and starring one of the titular outlet’s authors and bound together with a through-line concerning the paper’s strict yet bountifully supportive founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, because of course).
The French Dispatch’s full name (the paper’s, that is) is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, and it is so named because its office is located in Ennui-sur-Blasé (yes, really), a fictional French city modelled after iconic Parisian quarters like Montmartre. The level of care taken in the design and direction of The French Dispatch will be no surprise to anyone who has even a glancing familiarity with Wes Anderson’s filmography. Indeed his stylistic calling cards have permeated popular culture so much and have featured in so many parodies and homages that even those who may have not ever seen a single film by the director would likely recognise them: The meticulously arranged sets framed in equally precise symmetrical shots; the detached, ironic narration; the carefully curated classic pop and rock soundtracks. The latter is dialed down here a little in favour of a (delightful) original soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, but when it comes to everything else, The French Dispatch feels very much like the most distilled and concentrated serving of Anderson possible–for better and for worse.
That The French Dispatch is beautiful to look at is undeniable. Each and every frame here is absolutely brimming with detail, sight gags, and references. The people who exist in this diorama universe move through it and interact with each other with carefully choreographed chaos and effervescent energy. It truly is a joy to behold. Yet there is a tension that exists in Anderson’s work, a struggle between his desire to create the wonderfully elaborate dollhouses that he is famous for, and his ability to tell stories with real emotional heft (something that his detractors often unfairly forget he is more than capable of). When he manages to combine the two–as he did so wonderfully in his finest films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel)–he creates some of my favourite American cinema around. These are alchemical works of deep empathy, visual splendour, deadpan humour, and inspired slapstick. When the chemistry is off, however, the prevailing feeling is one of disappointment. Of missed opportunity. Of a director indulging himself with filigree while neglecting the foundations. Unfortunately, The French Dispatch is closer to the latter than the former.
The structure Anderson has chosen for the film does not do it any favours in this regard. Short stories are a challenge to tell well because you have minimal time to introduce and flesh out a narrative’s concept, conflicts, and–most applicable here–its characters. While the performances in The French Dispatch are strong across the board–with Anderson expanding his already impressive usual roster (Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, et al) with some great new faces (Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro to name just three)–practically everyone feels under-written and somewhat shallow. The hooks are there, the concepts are fun, and I would have gladly seen more of most of the characters that populate the movie’s segments, but unfortunately they are not given enough time or space to really come to life. They flit by like lovely sketches drawn on pieces of paper caught in a brisk autumn breeze.
In the first of the film’s four stories–by far the shortest of the lot–we follow Owen Wilson’s bicycle-based roving reporter, as he reports on the various ecologies of Ennui-sur-Blasé’s seedy underbelly. The second sequence is shot mostly in black and white (though all chapters alternate between monochrome and colour) and features Del Toro as a violent and deranged convict turned acclaimed painter who falls in love with one of the guards of the prison that houses him (Léa Seydoux, another welcome addition to the Anderson gallery); Tilda Swinton’s journalist is there to document it all. The third story follows a fearless yet detached journalist’s (Frances McDormand) time on the ’68-style barricades and her relationship with a youth rebellion leader played by Timothee Chalamet (perhaps the weakest link in the chain of main players here but still a fine performance). Finally, in the strongest of the film’s chapters, an excellent Jeffrey Wright steps into the shoes of a James Baldwin-inspired figure who gets involved in a fraught and action-packed kidnapping escapade while dining with the town’s police chief. It is these heroic-seeming, now much mythologised legends of 20th century print media that The French Dispatch seeks to pay loving homage to.
Some of the film’s virtues end up working against it too. Compared to what seems like the general drift in cinema towards movies that needlessly exceed 2 hours, it clocks in at a relatively succinct 1 hour 48 minutes. Sadly that mostly just compounds the issue of its characters not getting enough room to make a real impression. Anderson also keeps things moving at a pace that can only be described as breakneck. There are times when that works to its advantage–such as during a madcap and signature chase sequence in the final chapter–but mostly the film is so busy, so fast, so incredibly packed with detail and verbose repartee that it’s impossible to catch or absorb much of it in one viewing.
Wes Anderson’s works are consistently suffused in a haze of melancholy and longing. While they pop out of the screen with vibrant and bold colour schemes and are often very funny, there is an elegiac sadness that runs underneath it all, periodically making itself explicit. Death is never far away, and there’s always a sense that the stories we are watching unfold are somebody’s memories, bathed in the nostalgic yet bittersweet awareness of the transience of all things. His deeply flawed and complex heroes–from Max Fisher to Royal Tenenbaum to M. Gustave–are acutely cognisant of this. They feel their own slide into oblivion deep in their bones, and yet they soldier on poetically regardless. It’s perhaps this sense of bygone era that Anderson wants to communicate more than anything else in The French Dispatch. If that is his goal, then he has succeeded. The film serves as an effective heartfelt goodbye to an era of print journalism that is no longer with us; the director’s affection for it is writ large on screen for us. It’s just a shame that we are denied a deeper connection to the actual stories happening there. For a film that seeks to function as a tribute to the kind of intrepid, gifted journalists who would always make sure that there was a human heart beating at the core of their work, it seems an unfortunate misstep that the same cannot be said for the tribute itself.