REVIEW: The French Dispatch [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: October 22nd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Searchlight Pictures
    Director(s): Wes Anderson
    Writer(s): Wes Anderson / Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola & Hugo Guinness (story)

Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

I’m not sure you can get a more unadulterated shot to the vein of Wes Anderson than his quasi-anthology film The French Dispatch. Born from his own mind (and that of frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) with a healthy dose of inspiration taken from his adoration of The New Yorker, this self-proclaimed love letter to journalism set abroad in France proves to be the perfect venue for the auteur to distill his aesthetic craft to its most potent variables. Why worry about telling a cohesive feature-length story saddled with a single locale when you can create set upon set devoid of connective tissue beyond the audience’s willingness to sit and experience Anderson’s meticulously drawn theatrical machinations of an amalgamated world merging present with past?

We aren’t the only audience for it, however. No, the first person to read these stories and see them play out in his mind before compiling them within the pages of his magazine—itself a satellite shingle of an American publication his father owned at the time of his defection across the Atlantic (thus avoiding the need for too many subtitles when not punctuated for additional effect)—was editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray). Sadly, our ability to be positioned in his seat comes on the heels of his sudden death. This film is thus simultaneously a memorial to his genius and a loose interpretation of the process necessary to compile a final issue to the exacting specifications dictated by his will. One obituary and three reprinted articles.

The obit is the bookend. Anderson begins with a narrated description of Howitzer’s life and ends with the communal act of writing said narration by faces we meet in-between and others only present here (like Elisabeth Moss, Schwartzman, and Fisher Stevens). He then injects a bit of French ambiance courtesy of roaming cyclist reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) in a brilliant bit of physical comedy augmented by camera pans to get us in the European mood for eccentric artists, immature revolutionaries, and stereotypical cops and robbers. Those latter three chapters are presented by their scribes with J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) conducting an auditorium lecture, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) typing away in her office, and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) flexing his “typographic memory” on Liev Schreiber‘s televised talk show.

These “articles” are the focus despite their isolated relevance. The idea is to use their wild twists as evidence for why Howitzer was so great (he never cut a good story, was fiercely loyal to his writers, and risked bankruptcy to prove both truths). He’ll pay for Berensen’s exorbitant expenses to keep her work detailing an opportunist art dealer (Adrien Brody‘s Julian Cadazio), his prized incarcerated-for-dismemberment modern artist (Benicio Del Toro‘s Moses Rosenthaler), and the muse igniting their passion (Léa Seydoux‘s Simone). He’ll let Krementz submit five-times her approved word count for an account of Ennui youths (Timothée Chalamet‘s Zeffirelli and Lyna Khoudri‘s Juliette) fighting the establishment. And he’ll entertain Roebuck’s indirect route (kidnappings and sting operations) towards completing his assignment (a profile on Steve Park‘s chef, Nescaffier).

It’s all visually fantastic with intricate sets (the number of credited carpenters and painters rival actors) and even more intricate staging and blocking. Nothing is left to chance whether sight gags or dramatic camera movements like that of pushing into a play within a memory within a story within the overall film of a soldier’s harrowing suicide. The actors are committed no matter how big (Swinton donning huge fake teeth) or small (Tony Revolori, Christoph Waltz, Rupert Friend, and Saoirse Ronan are barely on-screen long enough to speak more than a brief monologue). And the cinematography moves from the “Academy ratio” to widescreen, black and white to jarring color, and live action to animation whenever the mood hits. Anderson has single-handedly employed a small army of skilled craftspeople.

I wish I could be more glowing about the overall work itself as a result because the pieces are all stupendous. Similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, Anderson seems more interested in the moments than he does the big picture. And that’s okay. I’d watch him play in these worlds for years to come regardless of how I’ll be lamenting the lack of bona fide masterpieces like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. I had hoped Moonrise Kingdom was a step back onto that path, but it appears he has fully embraced this looser narrative style for pure aesthetic artistry. Every frame is an irrefutably tiny work of art compiled together into a show that honestly could be viewed in any order without losing any clarity.

And leaving with a smile is no small feat these days. Anderson’s vision has never been more elaborate for better and worse in the grand scheme of things. There’s heart, comedy (although the constant decision to make light of sexuality, rape, and gender seems a bit archaic), and emotional heft punctuated by unforgettable sequences of cinematic wonder (the faux freeze-frame pans are stunningly rendered). The rhythm of the dialogue is catchy, the reactionary expressions are over-the-top, and the comic book-style cuts between boxed-up sets have our eyes in constant motion trying to absorb every little detail before the next shift left, right, up, or down. It’s an exhilarating ride regardless of whether it leaves you unsatisfied and wanting more by the end. That’s just Anderson guaranteeing job security.

[1] (From L-R): Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[2] (From L-R): Tilda Swinton, Lois Smith, Adrien Brody, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
[3] Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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