Any film fan can recognise a Wes Anderson film from a mile off. He has his own unique, quirky, and highly distinctive style that is present throughout every single shot in his films. And his latest film The French Dispatch, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year after being delayed due to the pandemic, is no exception to this.
The film receives its name from the widely read fictional American magazine titled ‘The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’ based in the French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the film follows three different stories told within the magazine’s final edition on the occasion of the death of its Kansas-born editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (played by Bill Murray). Howitzer has stated that the French Dispatch is to permanently cease after his death and so this will be the final issue.
The French Dispatch itself is based on The New Yorker and Bill Murray’s Howitzer on Harold Ross, the co-founder of The New Yorker and we hear Howitzer give words of wisdom to his writers including “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”. What follows are three separate stories, each told by writers of The French Dispatch and Anderson propels us into these stories with great prosperity.
The first of which, titled “The Concrete Masterpiece” is told by Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L. Berensen. She recounts the story of insane painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) who’s in prison for the rest of his life. The story and its characters have Anderson’s signature style of deadpan humour with Rosenthaler stating that it was all an accident and he “didn’t mean to kill anyone” when at his parole hearing only to be met with the response that he “decapitated 2 bartenders with a meat saw”. Rosenthaler is then discovered by art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who spots his painting and sells his work for astronomical prices.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” is the name of the second story and it sees Frances McDormand’s essayist Lucinda Krementz cross paths with Timothée Chalamet’s young and dreamy Zeffirelli as the youth of Ennui to go to war with the adults causing the entire country to shut down. We then reach the third and final story of the film, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” which, despite having the longest title, has the most going on. We meet the intelligent Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright) who tells his story of what’s supposed to be a portrait of legendary chef Nescaffier but what follows instead is a fast-paced tale of suspense and crime as the Commissaire’s son is kidnapped.
Each of the three stories are interesting and eccentric in their own manner but the problem is that’s all they are- stories. Anderson doesn’t propel us into some wonderful crazy world with wacky characters as he normally does, but instead he’s telling us stories. And because the film is essentially 3 shorter films tied together by the overarching narrative of The French Dispatch magazine, the film as a whole lacks any emotional depth or heart. There aren’t any exciting characters to keep us invested and for us to hook onto for more than about 40 minutes at a time.
Each story is interesting and engaging in their own right to some degree but when they last no more than three quarters of an hour each, unfortunately there isn’t anything keeping you hooked and interested in the film beyond the wonderful production design. There were times when the lavish sets and cinematography was far more interesting and compelling than the stories themselves and the characters that they were about.
Wes Anderson has perfected his craft and every single frame of every single shot is full of such wonder and so it’s slightly disappointing that the narrative isn’t especially appealing and that there are no particularly memorable or extraordinary characters as we’ve come to expect from Anderson’s work. The film boasts an impressive cast with Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and Saoirse Ronan among many of the familiar faces, it’s just unfortunate that none of them have a character with enough charm to be particularly noteworthy.
The French Dispatch bears all the signature trademarks of a Wes Anderson film and is full of such rich and vibrant details throughout, even as the film jumps between colour and black and white and as aspect ratios shift. But as a result of the split narrative, we’re left with three truncated and uninspiring stories that never fully capture our attention as much as one longer story would have leaving it far from Anderson’s best works.
The French Dispatch is released in cinemas on October 22nd.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
STARS: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
RUNTIME: 107 minutes