A dry and experimental piece of art.
Participating in the discourse surrounding Wes Anderson and his work is at once a tempting delight and an intricate challenge. Unmistakably, he has cultivated some of the most recognisably precise and glossy aesthetics in the contemporary filmscape.
For better or worse, Anderson is an unrelenting force of cognizant eccentricity; slyly winking at viewers with sumptuous tableau that commemorates and comments on not just the memory of bygone places, people and times, but his cinematic antecedents in equal measure. This has obviously garnered both its admirers and its detractors. It therefore comes as no surprise that Anderson’s latest feature is unlikely to turn any of his critics’ around on him. Inspired primarily by publications such as The New Yorker, The French Dispatch is Wes’ first full-on foray into an anthology format. The French Dispatch feels like an amalgamation of everything that has come before in Anderson’s oeuvre in form, theme and tone in the best of ways. Like the paper itself, it is a playful ode to the artistry behind storytelling, the cinematic medium and even his own work. It is practically Anderson at the zenith of his game so far, retaining much of the same heart hidden underneath his typical layers of quirk and charm; still finding diverting and imaginative ways to break apart the film medium.
A weekly report based in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blase (‘boredom-on-apathy’), The French Dispatch features “diverse stories of human interest”. The primary tale here follows the paper’s final publication followed by the passing of its creator and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. as played by Anderson alumni Bill Murray in a miniature, yet impactful role. The narrative is neatly divided, with three long stories as the central focus: The Concrete Masterpiece, Revisions to a Manifesto and The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, before being bookended briefly by the writing of Howitzer’s obituary by the remaining writers.
In standard Anderson fashion, The French Dispatch is loaded with his repeated repertoire of collaborators. It overflows with the likes of Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson to name but a fracture, all in unsurprising top shape as usual. However, it’s the newcomers to Anderson’s absurdist sphere that easily steal the show, fitting right in as if they were there all along, like the talents of Timothée Chalamet and Léa Seydoux. The stand-outs are most certainly that of Benicio del Toro as the prisoner artist Moses Rosenthaler as well as Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright in the last section, providing performances that perhaps are the entire crux of the film’s emotional backbone. The result is possibly Anderson’s most hysterical film yet, with the array of talent acing the usual dry, dark comic material on the surface.
If all that already feels too dizzying to wrap your head around, then no doubt the film’s splendidly singular visuals will too. The French Dispatch practically explodes off the screen with its varying aspect ratios, its switches between lavish monochrome and wondrous colour, the sudden shifts to full-on animation, alluring miniatures and dioramas, striking lighting and much more. The theatricality is obvious, as with the many set’s exteriors being moved out like a stage play to unveil the dollhouse right behind it. The French Dispatch is truly a vision to behold in this regard, most deservingly on a large screen.
But no frame is wasted purely for the sake of show-off excess. As with all his work, Anderson wants you to be completely aware of the artifice that belies film. One brilliant example in The French Dispatch involves the replacement of a character’s younger self with their older self, switching out the two actors within the same shot. This is partially where the magic of Wes Anderson stems, reaching back into a fading past and revitalizing it to a spectacular, almost utopic land. Yet, these realms remain just as true to life, evoking and arousing rather than forcing emotion upon the viewer as usually expected. It is at once ordered – ‘cinematic’ – and still curiously tinged with melancholy.
That Anderson continues to double down on his style in The French Dispatch can be read either positively or negatively. What it boils down to, though, is simply a matter of certain tastes. His manner of deadpan and overt self-reflexivity certainly precludes the traditional way we align with character and narrative, and The French Dispatch challenges this much further with its array of stories within story. It’s lack of traditional alignment is repeatedly misconstrued as coldness and distance. In reality, the deadpan expression is a front for his characters. To simply propose Anderson is hiding underneath artifice therefore is to do a disservice to his work – it is that through which the emotion is unveiled. They break away and allow themselves open and vulnerable for just a moment.
Later in the film, the police commissioner’s chef slowly recovers from eating his own poison. It’s a new taste – a new sensation he has never had before. In his no doubt vast palette of thousands of tastes, there remain new things to find. So, too, is Anderson himself discovering his own tastes, his own perceptions and his own art. The entirety of The French Dispatch is an expression of his appreciation towards collectives like journalists, like his family of collaborators that he could simply not do without. Just as it is the job of journalists, more widely it storytellers who stylishly bring interest, freedom and exuberance to what sometimes is mundane, dark and indifferent.
The French Dispatch is then, to put it simply, an absolute winning feast. It is no doubt an overwhelming project, with Anderson more interested than usual in exploring the fundamentals of art, including his own; altogether perfectly packaged with his snazzy balance of humour and pathos and a fittingly vivid ribbon of fanciful visual-audio splendour. With time, The French Dispatch is certain to become better appreciated not just within Anderson’s body of work but for those it owes itself to and reveres.