NYFF 2021 review: The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)

“Audiences might find the relentless flood of invention dizzying and tiring but those willing to pay attention will be amply rewarded with the fruits of Anderson’s boundless imagination in The French Dispatch.

The French Dispatch, the latest instalment in the Wes Anderson cinematic universe, needs to be seen at least twice before you can begin to unpack it. So ostentatious is the mise-en-scène, so forbidding is the concentrated wit, so unadulterated is the Anderson signature, that audiences might be left a little cold and feel they have been held at a reserve. Some might find Anderson’s exponentially escalating formal brilliance to have come at the cost of diminishing human interest. But delve a little deeper and you will locate the film’s beating heart; rest assured, there is one.

The experience of watching The French Dispatch can be akin to watching Citizen Kane – though to be clear the two films are not comparable in terms of quality. When you watch Kane for the first time its formal achievement bludgeons you, so much so that you don’t even watch the film. Rather you gaze at it, numbed. The story almost escapes notice, so blindsided are you by the sheer filmmaking genius of it. You might come away feeling similarly after your first encounter with The French Dispatch. It is so prodigiously mounted, so exactingly directed, that the concentration required in taking in its avalanche of dense detail, zipping by at breakneck pace, might lead you to not engage with the narrative at all.

Structured like an omnibus, the film is divided into six sections – like an issue of The New Yorker, the explicit inspiration for the titular magazine. The first section functions as a frame story. An obituary announces the death of the Editor (Bill Murray) of The French Dispatch, a weekly supplement to a Kansas newspaper published out of Angoulême, France – doubling for the invented city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. This section tracks the history and methods of the magazine as well as its offices and staff. Its four superstar writers – played by Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright – then take turns narrating their respective articles, imagined as four self-contained short films. The brief closing section, akin to an epilogue, brings together the magazine’s staff for the shuttering of the publication.

Even though the cast list is overwhelming, like much else in the movie, with fifty stars from Hollywood and French cinema appearing, there are in actuality only twelve main roles. In addition to the five actors mentioned above, Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux and Adrien Brody appear in Swinton’s story The Concrete Masterpiece. McDormand’s Revisions to a Manifesto includes Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri. Wright’s The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner counts Mathieu Amalric and Steve Park as its primary stars. Once you align yourself to these twelve actors, the film can seem much more comprehensible than if you are trying to keep track of star after star that appears for a line each – surely a credit to Anderson’s immense pull as an auteur.

An omnibus lives and dies on the strength of its stories and the ones on offer here are fabulously contrived with a distinctly Andersonian sense of whimsy. Wilson’s short travelogue aside, the three main tales – Swinton’s, McDormand’s and Wright’s – are deeply imagined and fully as engaging as anything in The New Yorker. Swinton’s arts piece, a biographical profile of an eccentric painter, is the most traditional and conventionally audience pleasing of the bunch. Better still are McDormand’s political dispatch about student uprisings and Wright’s culinary treatise about a police cook. These latter two tales specifically contain the deep melancholy that audiences found so attractive in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The life-affirming strain of sentimentality in that film is replaced with something more uncompromising here, but beneath their rigorous intelligence these stories remain alive to a sense of loss and tragedy. There is stirring material here and those looking to be moved will get there with a little effort and participation.

The omnibus is a popular contraption this year with Japanese master Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy also a fixture on the festival circuit. While Hamaguchi constructed his short films as two or three handers in one or two locations and two or three scenes, surely Anderson couldn’t be content with that and pulls all manner of hijinks in his short films. Within each tale there are flashbacks, flashforwards, and dream sequences, and narrative chronology is constantly interrupted by addresses, lectures and talk shows. A barrage of trivia, asides, anecdotes and incidental miscellanea is hurled at the screen non-stop. There are aspect ratio changes, alternating monochrome and colour footage, split screen and still frames. At one point McDormand’s story turns into a stage play and Wright’s story turns into an animated film. Audiences might find the relentless flood of invention dizzying and tiring but those willing to pay attention will be amply rewarded with the fruits of Anderson’s boundless imagination.

If it all sounds like more of the same, there are some novel additions to the catalogue of regular Andersonian indulgences. He’s leaning more heavily than ever into this Francophilia. His tasteful filmography only lightly peppered with profanity and violence finds a surprising influx of sex and nudity via this film. Seydoux appears full frontal at length and Chalamet, Swinton and Khoudri drop their drawers too. The performances are even more stylized than usual with brusque, arch delivery of the typically literate dialog applying complex syntax and an elaborate vocabulary. The refined enunciation of the epigrammatic lines by several actors is a continuous pleasure. An explicit tribute to cosmopolitan, writerly pursuits, The French Dispatch might disappoint viewers looking for any kind of freedom of the press statement from Anderson. This is a journalism picture but it has no bearing on the current moment and viewers seeking commentary on the fourth estate need to look elsewhere. The primary concerns here are Anderson’s pet themes – a kind of intellectualized nostalgia for an imagined past.

Amongst contemporary auteurs Anderson is the foremost exemplar of the cinematic art of blocking. This film is practically Mise-en-Scène: The Movie and must go down in history as one of the most persnickety, fussily choreographed movies ever made. It would make Playtime-era Jacques Tati blush, and even he might find The French Dispatch to be over-formulated and its staging overly worked out. Conventional film theory would dictate that the mise-en-scène is a means to an end – the conveying of a feeling, thought or idea to the viewer. Anderson’s mise-en-scène is an end unto itself. It is no secret that even big name directors today have all but surrendered this crucial part of their job to storyboard artists, pre-viz technicians, assistant directors or even directors of photography. Not Anderson. Every single frame is fetishistically assembled and unmistakably his.

A bevy of Anderson’s regular craftspeople provides top tier contributions to bring his vision to life. Adam Stockhausen’s set design, Milena Canonero’s sartorial meticulousness, Robert Yeoman’s varied photography and Andrew Weisblum’s clockwork-precise montage represent the best in production values that money can buy. The film is visually dazzling from the first moment to the last. Alexandre Desplat’s jangly score is serviceable but isn’t really given room to breathe by the fractured nature of the film’s narrative and is diluted by an eclectic selection of existing music.

The film stayed on the shelf for over a year due to the pandemic but was finally unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival this year with the associated pomp and circumstance (though curiously no press conference). The mainstream box office and awards success that visited Anderson’s last live action film might not materialize this time but Anderson diehards will find plenty to admire. It is difficult to imagine where Anderson goes from here. The French Dispatch finds him at the very apex of his formal acumen and technical prowess, but perhaps in too rarefied territory. The film is just about on the right side of over-wrought, over-produced and over-directed, and accusations of self-parody will only get more insistent after this film. Unlike the detractors, I remain in awe of Anderson’s towering craft and his singular facility for crafting smart, memorable entertainments for discerning adults.