The French Dispatch goes a little off-piste for a Wes Anderson, and while the story is chock-full of tangential references and discrete elements, the composition is gorgeous and there’s little doubt it’ll be an Oscar favourite. After years of waiting (I remember covering the news in 2018), and multiple postponements due to covid, I’m pleased to say it’s finally arrived. Was it worth the months of anticipation, the 6am start today and over an hour of queueing at the London Film Festival? Yes, I think it was. Although perhaps not as perfectly executed or instantly loveable as The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s nevertheless an entertaining ensemble feature.
The French Dispatch often feels like a two-hour version of its trailer: a little all over the place, a little unclear, but it did get a few laughs. Each story is a separate feature from a writer based at a fictional newspaper: you have to do a bit more work than a normal film in the catalogue to keep up, but it’s nothing too strenuous. All the usual players (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Benecio del Toro) were really the meat of this film, with the welcome additions of Timothée Chalamet and Léa Seydoux. Whether it will reach cult status like his previous work will largely depend on critics’ personal capacity for his material, and commercial viewers’ preferences come award season.
The French Dispatch
Director: Wes Anderson
Release date: October 10, 2021 (LFF)
In contrast to the film’s central fictional newspaper and its location in the town of Ennui-sur-blasé, The French Dispatch felt busy. We follow five writers as they each produce a written feature for the paper, guided by an indomitable editor (Murray). The separate stories never really meet but are united by this central happening at the paper, so named as it’s the French Dispatch, or lesser-read supplement, of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Set up by the son of a wealthy Kansas family who decided to take a holiday in France, resulting in a lifetime spent there, it’s a quirky and whimsical paper that affectionately pays homage to the New York Times, or any other such unique and close-knit publication.
We have all the big players to contend with. Newspaper owner Arthur Howitzer Jr (Murray) commissions a feature from each of his staffers and the results vary hugely in temperament, depth, and subject. From Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), he gets a profile of student, idealist and activist, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) during student uprisings. From Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), he gets a heartfelt televised interview and, later, a written piece about Wright’s arrival to the town, and his encounter with a certain wealthy family involving a child’s abduction, a cunning chef and an inexplicable wrestler.
From Paul Duval (Christoph Waltz), he gets a snapshot of an artistic genius Moses Rosenthaler (Tony Revolori and Benicio Del Toro) who produces his magnum opus in jail, inspired by his guard and muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). This is narrated by Kansas City resident and curator J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, in one of multiple appearances this festival) — and Julian Cadazio’s (Adrien Brody) obsession with the artwork can’t fail to remind us of Dmitri’s obsession with ‘Boy with Apple’ in GBH.
So yes, it’s a very busy film. Because the story doesn’t take a (relatively) straightforward route involving a single central character or duo, as many of his previous works have, it can feel a little disjointed. Don’t be too put off by this, though. It has its charming moments. For instance, a showgirl (Saoirse Ronan) takes pity on an abducted child and befriends him. Cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) repeatedly rides into moving obstacles and down metro passages while trying to narrate his story, which is good ol’ fashioned slapstick, and I loved it. The film is also shot beautifully with filters oscillating between tinted monochrome and colour. Occasional rapid switches between these two are both humorous and inventive, keeping us guessing at what might come next, in a self-reflexive nod to the film form.
The things I find problematic are less to do with the film and its form, and more to do with the project’s publicity. While Timothee Chalamet is cited in all the publicity material, his part is only part of a wider ensemble and I think some of the weight has been unevenly distributed onto him, turning the film into more of a star vehicle (timed with the imminent Dune release.) This almost does a disservice to the rest of the talented cast. The other issue is the sheer complexity of details in the film. With so much ground to cover and so little time, stars and characters don’t get nearly as much time as they ought to. One almost feels as though each part of the anthology deserves to be its own separate film because there is so much to unpack.
My final comment is on the cliche ‘a love-letter to journalism’. While that’s an accurate description of The French Dispatch, I’d rather say it was an homage to the art of good craftsmanship in all its forms. After all, everyone is storytelling: the writers, the narrator, even Anderson, whose immaculate set design and centre-placed shots are always precisely engineered and delivered. It’s a film about that not only talks about attention to detail, it demonstrates it in every frame.
A film with so much expectation and anticipation surrounding it can hardly be served justly in a short review such as this, so expect thoughts and opinions to solidify and deepen as we approach the release date. What’s certain, though, is that it’ll be a favourite over the upcoming holiday season. I wouldn’t venture as far as to call this family-friendly, in perhaps the way Moonrise Kingdom or Isle of Dogs would have been — by contrast, there are darkly comic elements down to the macabre. But for all that, the film is exactly what you get from Anderson and it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.