The French Dispatch
Upon the death of its editor of 50 years (Bill Murray), emigre publication The French Dispatch prepares its last issue. It includes re-prints of several specially selected stories: “The Cycling Reporter” where Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) gives a tour of the newspaper home town of Ennui; “The Concrete Masterpiece”, on imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) whose work inspired by one of his jailers (Lea Seydoux) draws the attention of dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrian Brody); “Revisions To A Manifesto”, a story where jaded political journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDonald) covers a student revolution led by awkward firebrand Zifferelli (Timothee Chalamet); and “The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner” by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), which covers kidnapping, shootouts, car chases and death, in the middle of a unique dining experience.
It might be the most overplayed bit of criticism that you will see anytime that Wes Anderson releases a new film, but that’s just because it is fundamentally true: he’s a director you either love or hate, and if you hate him there’s nothing in The French Dispatch that will change your mind. Like all of his films, it’s very much Wes Anderson: the symmetrical framing, the colour scheme, the fast-spoken unearthly dialogue and themes of seeking human connection in a very alien world. If you haven’t been on the Anderson train (or should we say Darjeeling Unlimited?) before now, getting on at this stop now isn’t going to result in an enjoyable voyage for you.
But if you’re like me, and you have enjoyed Wes Anderson’s unique brand of filmmaking in the past, then The French Dispatch will be another one to enjoy. Not as much as The Grand Budapest Hotel mind, which remains his masterpiece for me, but one to enjoy nevertheless. It’s got all of his hallmarks, and to spare: between the way that Anderson tries to turn every scene into some manner of mirrored still-life that just happens to having moving people in it and the way that the time period and language make you think you are looking into a story from a different universe, you are most definitely in the mindspace of the director. Like many of his other films things unfold in an episodic fashion, though it has never been as pronounced as it is here: The French Dispatch is very much an anthology film, with it’s various “articles” having connection in theme and in setting, but very much independent short films all of their own.
And they are all good of their own accord. The settling in is accomplished so well in the way we are introduced to this unlikely New Yorker parody, set-up in the amazingly named Ennui, to which we are introduced in rapid-fire style by Owen Wilson, travelling through a succession of 2D environments with the ease of a well-versed traveler. From there we are into the meat and bones of the exercise. “The Concrete Masterpiece” is a tour-de-force of ridiculous comedy matched with Anderson’s penchant for off-beat relationships, in this case between del Toro’s tortured genius and Seydoux’s mostly silent prison guard. With narration provided from Tilda Swinton’s all too impressed lecturer, and that little extra something by Adrian Brody’s unhinged art dealer it’s a sometimes strange piece that still generates plenty of unlikely laughs.
“Revisions To A Manifesto” explores student politics as a source of drama, romance and ridicule, with Frances McDonald as a very able narrator for a succession of absurdist scenes (the whole thing climaxes with Chalamet’s would-be revolutionary determining the outcome of the thing by playing chess with Ennui’s mayor). Things get, perhaps, a bit too avante garde when Anderson introduces plays-within-a-story, fictional musicians played by real musicians and some of the most marmite-esque exchanges of fast-paced dialogue, but it’s hard not to be charmed by this story, that I felt was the closest to The Grand Budapest Hotel in terms of the way it marries the deathly serious with the comically tragic. Chalamet, the most notable newcomer to the Anderson filmmaking family is more than good enough to take on the material, which posits just how a revolution can work when the revolutionaries don’t know what they are fighting for.
Last is the utterly madcap “The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner”, wherein Anderson really gets to indulge himself. It’s already an almost childish delight between Jeffrey Wright’s smokey narration, the police detective famous for his specific brand of stakeout-friendly cuisine, a kidnapping, a wrestling champion, a shootout across the streets of Ennui and a four course meal in the middle of it all, before the director turns to animation to make-up up a surprisingly thrilling car and foot chase at the conclusion. Even here there is time for some weighty drama and philosophical musings, but it’s mostly about the fun: Anderson going to the well of The Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle Of Dogs to cap the entire experience off.
On the visual side of things, well, you know what I’m going to say before I say it, don’t you? The symmetry is here, the pans are here, the incredible effort to encapsulate the idea of mise en scene in its most literal interpretation is here. The fine details, the props, the placing of principals, the background posters, the manner in which the camera moves only at select moments, the cutting between timelines, it all combines into, well, Wes Anderson. His film’s aren’t meant, I think anyway, to be taken as a representation of our world, or any particular era: instead they are a complete fabrication, a fantasy world, in this case of cool emigre journalists reporting on the kind of story-telling tropes that exist only in the imagination. The manner in which the dialogue is delivered (scatter-shot, dead-pan, quick), in combination with the way the whole thing is shot, only helps this impression. One wishes there were more POC in the cast and perhaps less female nudity of little point or purpose, but it’s hard to feel too harsh when the end product is as good, visually, as it is here. Alexandre Desplat is also back to give us the kind of scores we have experienced and enjoyed every time he has teamed up with Anderson, with simple, charming repeated beats, that never fail to be pleasant to the ear.
So, this is Wes Anderson. If you weren’t blown away by The Grand Budapest Hotel, or charmed by The Fantastic Mr Fox or suitably entranced by The Royal Tenanbaums or The Life Aquatic or Isle Of Dogs then you will find nothing here to change your mind about the director. But if, like me, you find so much to enjoy in Anderson’s work, from the way he writes to the way that he places his camera to the depth of information that populates every moment of his films, then The French Dispatch will blow you away, wow you, entrance you and everything in-between. It isn’t his very best work, but it isn’t far off either. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Searchlight Pictures).