THE FRENCH DISPATCH Review
For a film about the treasures of journalism, Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH feels much closer to a well-plated dinner party. To start off, the film looks absolutely gorgeous (as one would expect from a Wes Anderson movie) but like the best feasts, this latest dip into another endearingly kooky and off centered world is genuinely filling.
Even with the presence of the filmmaker’s expected lush visual pallette and sardonic humor, THE FRENCH DISPATCH refreshingly feels a tad more restrained in narrative, taking on the anthologic structure of a newspaper, offering a quick segment on the history of the film’s fictional French town, Ennui-Sur-Blase, before diving into three different “articles” and finally concluding with a bittersweet obituary section. Throughout this variety show of rotating characters and scenarios, the film is centered around the ongoings at the eponymous paper, which like all other Anderson businesses operates on an assembly line of unmistakable symmetry and whimsy. In its personable rooms, the audience is introduced to paper editor and owner, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), who runs his imported-from-Kansas operation with the patented Murray-isms of sarcasm and straight-faced dickishness. In the midst of publishing the newspapers' final issue, Howitzer Jr. recruits his longtime writing staff to re-publish three of their best works, which make up the bulk of Anderson’s film.
In each of these tales, which follows the likes of psychopathic painters, kiddie revolutionaries, and delicate dinners with police commissioners, THE FRENCH DISPATCH dives past Anderson’s expected characteristics (beautiful compositions, flavorful dialogue, obtuse character names, etc.) towards the filmmaker’s continued focus on latching on a slightly pained atmosphere of bittersweet nostalgia and mortality. As with with other anthologic films, not every segment can be as strong as the other, but thanks to Anderson’s wonderfully composed visual theme and atmosphere there isn’t much of a quality gap between the different stories; some just turn out to be a bit more enjoyable or others. That being said, as with other of the auteur’s works, THE FRENCH DISPATCH can feel (and definitely look, if still not showing considerable improvement and control of the craft) very similar to his past films so if you never considered yourself an Anderson head, this film will hardly change your impressions on his work.
Per usual, THE FRENCH DISPATCH benefits from another wonderfully powerful cast sheet, where returning Anderson collaborators come and do what they do best (Murray, bittersweet sarcasm; Tilda Swinton, uppity yet slightly demented; Owen Wilson, lovably chill) and newcomers (Benicio Del Toro, lovably grizzly; Jeffrey Wright, heartbreakingly yearning; Timothee Chalamet, in over his head French kid) get a chance to run weird in a kooky world. Particular standouts include Mr. Wright, who, in the most emotionally resonating segment involving a lonely American reporter finding a sense of family in the dinners with a French Police Commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), portrays one of Anderson’s more heartbreaking characters with his usual blend of scratchy sophistication and mournful heart. One particular monologue that deftly navigates the comedies and pains of being alone in the city and within yourself automatically punches Wright’s ticket to an Oscar nom. Elsewhere, newcomer Lyna Khoudri makes a memorable impression in the Chalamet-Frances McDormand segment, a more comedic (yet still tinged by understated tragedy) tale involving the nagging matters of impulsive love and revolutionary protesting. Acting as the romantic and ideological foil to Chalamet’s aloof martyr-in-the-making, Ms. Khoudri brings a more authentic air of naiveté and headstrong stubbornness to a young woman in over her head, when compared to Mr. Chalamet, who can’t quite get a firm handle on Anderson’s whip-snap dialogue. Even so, that very awkwardness manages to add a bit of unintentional depth to Chalamet’s character, himself a young, promising man faced with great changes on the horizon.
Navigating comedy and genuine drama is daunting but as with his previous films, Anderson seems to be fully comfortable in that tightrope balance, effectively merging the two in harmony as both writer (with help from credited story contributors Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) and director. In one moment, the audience can be treated to Anderson’s humorous approach to a Parisian street riot, filled with cheekily staged background details and jokes, and in the next grapple with the themes of legacies both earned and never realized. Even when THE FRENCH DISPATCH appears to just swim around in pure zaniness (as found in the Benicio Del Toro/Lea Seydoux segment involving a loony prisoner turned art world darling), there’s an always present respect for the characters themselves, allowing even the most off-kilter of creations to come across as endearing. With a strange magic, Anderson has created another film that, despite the presence of cartoon car-chasing musclemen and other oddities, captures the feeling of life itself: an always surprising parade of both comedic and tragic events.
While Anderson’s style and voice remains more or less the same as it was since the beginning, THE FRENCH DISPATCH displays a filmmaker continuing to mature as a thematic storyteller. In the face of the theme of unquestionable finality (as displayed in newspapers’ own impending and unavoidable end), Anderson manages to find a glimmer of magical light shining through because even as one story ends, there are millions of others waiting to be told. On my end, I can’t wait to see the next assuredly strange, funny, and ultimately warm tale Anderson is waiting to tell next.