Jackson Greenleaf | Contributor | email@example.com
Before I begin my review of The French Dispatch I should reveal that Wes Anderson is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. As far back as I can remember, I have been continually transfixed by his remarkably distinctive style, and it would be nearly impossible for me to put forth a fair and honest critique without first recognizing my adoration of his previous work.
After re watching The French Dispatch, it is easy to see why his films have amassed such a sizable following among cinephiles. With eye-catching use of color and trademark whip pan camera movement. Meticulous symmetry and rapidly delivered dialogue. Voiced by a series of A-list actors seemingly ever-present throughout Anderson’s filmography like Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, (to name two). His creative trademarks are as apparent here as ever.
The film’s narrative is characteristically playful too. It focuses on The French Dispatch, a 20th-century American-run magazine published in France. Spearheaded by its passionate editor-in-chief (Bill Murray) and a team of eccentric yet talented journalists. The movie depicts four different stories that appear in the magazine, each narrated by the journalist who composed them. The decision to tell a variety of separate stories in one is undeniably ambitious, but it yields mixed results.
The prologue is narrated by Owen Wilson while he rides a fixed-gear bicycle, (in case the plot alone did not seem Wes Anderson enough.) This mainly serves as a description of the fictional town of Ennui France in which the stories take place. What follows is the first major narrative of the film, Which tells the tale of an inmate (Benicio Del Toro) incarcerated for violent crime who happens to possess whimsical artistic ability. Aided by a stern, strong-willed and beautiful muse (Lea Seydoux) who ironically serves as a guard at the prison. Seydoux’s excellent performance generates intrigue for this installment, which also contains some magnificent cinematography and witty commentary on modern art.
The subsequent section depicts the activism and uprising of the students in Ennui. A movement that is ushered in by a youthful and charismatic leader, played by rising star Timothee Chalamet, whose prior roles and personal style made his appearance in a Wes Anderson feature seem somewhat inevitable. The plot follows Chalamet’s character as he grapples with the responsibilities of the social crusade, and engages in a romantic fling with an older hyper focused journalist, portrayed by the consistently excellent Francis McDermott, whose character also narrates the proceedings.
Anderson’s trademark aesthetic is brilliantly implemented throughout this segment. The café where students gather to discuss strategy is adorned with radiant yellow color. Outfitted with symmetrically arranged red café tables and a jukebox, which perfectly ties together the vintage atmosphere prevalent in so much of his work. During a scene towards the end of the story, Chalamet’s character is choosing whether to continue his relationship with the journalist, or pursue the affection of a younger fellow activist. This dichotomy is represented gorgeously using a split-screen of the two characters’ faces. The dimly lit journalist in a room predominantly shaded with white coloring, revealing her more advanced age. Contrasted with the youthful protester, backlit by luminescent reds and blues, her features accented with the warm orange light illuminating her face. Shots like these exhibit some of the most impressive cinematography of any Anderson movie to date, a testament to the continued achievements of Anderson himself and director of photography Robert Yeoman.
However, despite the marvelous visuals in the French Dispatch, the storytelling leaves much to be desired. The aspirations of the activists for instance are somewhat muddled and insignificant. Instead of serving as a point of intrigue or empathy for the audience, they are used as a placeholder for another quirky Wes Anderson adventure.
The fourth and final depiction suffers from the same dilemma. The writer (Jeffrey Wright) whose character was supposedly inspired by brilliant civil rights advocate and author James Baldwin, recalls his article verbatim while appearing on a 60s style talk show. His tale is the most surreal and abnormal of the lot. As he recounts a scene that involves both delicious cuisine and a high-stakes kidnapping. The artistry is once again dazzling and it closes with assuredly one of the most beautiful animated sequences of 2021. Even still, despite its seemingly thrilling subject matter, the kidnapping aspect is completely devoid of any tension. The stakes feel nonexistent and the characters underdeveloped, thus the viewer is given very little incentive to become invested in their well-being.
This story in particular highlights the biggest problem with the French Dispatch. For all the outstanding cinematography, the movie is severely lacking when it comes to an engaging narrative. Because it attempts to tell three stories in one, the elements that make the stories themselves compelling such as intriguing plots, palpable drama, and character arcs, are rendered at best secondary and at worst unapparent. When contrasting it with one of Anderson’s more accomplished works like my personal favorite The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is easy to see why the latter is more widely appreciated. Yes, it contains stunning imagery and a whimsical color palette, but what makes it great is that these elements are coupled with complex and hilarious characters you can’t help but root for, action sequences that maintain edge of your seat tension in spite of their fun nature, and emotionally stirring moments that leave a profound effect on the audience.
The French Dispatch, by contrast, is seemingly designed for the pre established Anderson fan such as myself, not a newcomer hoping to find a great new movie. That is why, though I certainly enjoyed it, I can’t shake the sense of squandered potential it elicits. In spite of its undoubted visual allure, it mainly prioritizes style over substance.