The French Dispatch
The by-the-numbers Wes Anderson film, proves winning enough
Wes Anderson has developed such a distinct style and set of expectations in his films, that it is rather impressive and admirable that he can keep delivering consistent and equally original content. After being delayed for over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson’s tenth film has finally hit screens, and it demonstrates the indefatigable creative genius of the director.
The French Dispatch (2021) is another sprawling tale, full of innumerous quirky characters and branching subplots. The entire film is centered loosely on a celebration of journalism. We follow the life of the last issue of a magazine called “The French Dispatch,” a New Yorker-like publication, only based in the fictional French town of Ennui sur-Blasé. We follow editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) as he collects the articles from his various writers such as the political reporter (Frances McDormand), the arts critic (Tilda Swinton), the travel dispatcher (Owen Wilson), and the food critic (Jeffrey Wright).
The French Dispatch is structured to facilitate the telling of short stories. As we hear the articles narrated by their respective authors, the film turns into a black and white visual telling of their words. This allows for a stringing of the quirky and witty narratives that Anderson had extended into entire films in the past. This change might remind some viewers to the similar tactic employed by the Coen Brothers in their Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). This structural change allows Anderson to experiment with his style and characters, but it also means that the resulting themes and journeys are shallower. By not sticking around with a lead character, or even story, viewers are never invited into the deeper layers behind the thin narratives.
In some senses, Anderson is indulging in his styles and quirks. He seems to be mindlessly directing, like Picasso painted in his final years. Albeit, just as the Spanish painter, even a mindless artistic creation is masterful and joyful to experience. Anderson once again brings about his symmetrical cinematography, colorful production design, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and dark humor. In this liberated form, The French Dispatch is more akin to a celebration of Anderson and his signature tone rather than a furthering of his daring filmography. In fact, many moments on the screen can be overwhelming in their Anderson-ness, dangerously approaching a distracting level. However, given the groundbreaking content that Anderson’s work has produced in the past, he has enough credit to lose himself in his own artistic muddles.
The short stories that form The French Dispatch are enjoyable as standalone pieces. Some are stronger than others, yet all are entertaining and satisfying for viewers. By having such contained stories, it also allows Anderson to expand his usual star-studded cast. This gives him the freedom to include his regulars (Bob Balaban, Edward Norton) and new additions (Timothée Chalamet, Lea Seydoux). With an embarrassment of riches, Anderson does well to not let such a wide lineup intimidate him from sidelining certain actors in favor of a joke or quirky plot point. All the performers seem to slip into Anderson’s rhythm with a relative relish that truly transports you into the American director’s unique world.
In the end, The French Dispatch is a diverting experience to lose oneself in. If one lets go of pretenses, and simply goes along with a trust in Anderson, it will result in a pleasant evening. The French Dispatch is not the most compact or better-structured film to have come from the American, but it is an admirable unabashed showcase of his skill and talent.