by Robbie Jones
There are many aspects of Wes Anderson that viewers will make a point of noting, from his idiosyncratic worlds and visual symmetry to the kooky characters to that inhabit his worlds. There’s a lot to be said for his aesthetic, but one of his greatest talents is in his writing. As a storyteller, Anderson frequently excels at coming of age tales and journeys of personal reflection. The likes of Max Fishcer in Rushmore, Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, Chas Tenenbaum and many more showcase the director’s ability to produce characters worth investing in and enjoying their growth. With that in mind, The French Dispatch has every Wes Anderson trope to offer except his arguable best.
Inspire by Anderson’s own adoration for The New Yorker, the story centres on the titular magazine, run by editor-in-chief Arthur Howtizer Jr. (Bill Murray) in the fictional French town of Ennui. We’re treated to three major stories written by journalists J.K.L Berenson (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) – with a shorter piece by travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) – chronicling the lives and adventures of an incarcerated prisoner (Benicio Del Toro), his prison guard muse (Lea Seydoux) and the lucrative businessman (Adrien Brody) looking to buy his work; a student (Timothee Chalamet) who leads a revolution; and the enthralling tale of an expert chef (Stephen Park).
The French Dispatch has a burning love for the art of journalistic storytelling, with each writer taking over as narrator for their portion of the film. A nice touch, considering that the rest of the film is narrated by the incomparable Anjelica Huston and it could have been very easy to lean on that one narrator telling each story and just simply letting Berenson, Krementz and Wright be characters in the pieces. Instead, the writers tell their stories with the same pride, passion and grandeur that is often awarded them in real life.
We’re treated to many of the beloved caveats that come with a Wes Anderson film; beautiful cinematography, settings and backdrops so masterfully constructed, another score from Alexandre Desplat that knocks it out of the park and a cast that the descriptor ‘all-star’ simply doesn’t do justice; the usual suspects of Anderson’s work are all present, from the people who have been there from the start (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman) to some that became frequent collaborators along the way (Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe), along with a bevvy of debut performances like Timothee Chalamet, Stephen Park, Jeffrey Wright and more. The way he keeps actors close to his chest is one of Anderson’s most endearing qualities, casting talented names in considerably small roles – such as Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan – who could be at risk of feeling wasted with such little to do, but simply fit into place in his expansive cinematic world.
Where The French Dispatch falls apart is with the lack of Anderson’s greatest strength, which is missing as a result of the story structure; Anderson excels at characters and, whilst every character in the film is entertaining and well thought out, the journeys and character growth that Anderson is great at are totally absent. It’s to be expected, with a story format that doesn’t accommodate individual stories drawn out to completion. This is simply a case of Anderson trying something new, which is absolutely fine and should only be encouraged, but when the film has every other signature element of his work baked into it and it’s then missing that one key element, it’s hard to get into. It feels like being welcomed into someone’s home, and that person not only has a beautiful house but is also an excellent host, nurturing and caring for you while you stay. Then the next time you visit, the house is still as beautiful as it ever was, but now the host completely ignores you and leaves you feeling unwelcome.
What works about The French Dispatch works well, but the cold and detached approach to the storytelling is jarring for Wes Anderson. That said, it’s always nice to see a director branch out from their norms and figuring out if works or not, and it’ll be interesting to see how the film plays with his fans once it’s released.
The French Dispatch played as part of BFI London Film Festival