Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay/story), Roman Coppola (story), Hugo Guinness (story), Jason Schwartzman (story)
Actors: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Park
By Tom Moore
Wes Anderson has created unique cinematic experiences for over a decade with his animated and live-action comedies that feature widely talented casts, his “different” comedic style, and light-hearted stories with big emotional pulls. His latest film, “The French Dispatch” (2021), is a delightful culmination of who he is as a filmmaker.
There’s something immediately satisfying about the way Anderson tells the story of the titular fictional publication as he makes it sort of an ode to their work and the crass but caring editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) after his sudden death. It’s an instantly meaningful way to establish the impact of the publication and sets up the film’s narrative structure perfectly. The use of an obituary for Arthur and a short trip around the film’s central French town of Ennui-sur- Blasé with the Dispatch’s cycling journalist Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) nicely familiarizes viewers with the world that its three main stories from arts and entertainment writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), profile piece writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and food journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) will take place in. And what a delightful world that Anderson has designed.
Ennui-sur- Blasé might be one of Anderson’s most visually imaginative worlds yet as its architecture almost has this M.C. Escher complexity and really pops with his trademark symmetric cinematography. There’s an initial scene of a waiter hilariously going through different staircases and even a ladder to bring Arthur a drink that excellently sets up the wild weirdness of this small French city. Mixed with his symmetric view of the world, Anderson turns every aspect of Ennui-sur-Blasé and the innards of the French Dispatch and its stories into an eye-catching fantasy.
It’s also nice to see Anderson use black and white cinematography mixed with color every now and again to create engaging visuals, but their purpose feels lost at times. At first, he seems like he’s establishing it as a part of time or big narrative changes during Sazerac’s trip around Ennui-sur-Blasé, but then the cinematography switches from black and white to color with no clear sense of purpose. While it looks great, it would’ve been nice to see Anderson use this style of cinematography to create something more than visual confusion.
With its central stories covering the struggles of an imprisoned artist, a growing revolutionary movement led by young students, and a profile piece on a chef helping the police chief save his kidnapped son, there’s plenty of Anderson’s comedic charm and favorable faces to go around. Frankly, “The French Dispatch” might be Anderson’s funniest movie in recent time as his comedic timing and charm is top notch. There are plenty of funny nods and jokes made about the work of journalists that likely tie to Anderson being inspired by the works of “The New Yorker” when making this, that’ll make you laugh – especially when it comes to Krementz’s story about young revolutionaries. The quirkiness of the young revolutionaries led by the determined and change-seeking Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) is just a warming delight and Krementz’s questionable journalistic ethics are hilarious to see play out. The dynamic of Zeffierelli and Krementz is sort of pitched as a mentor relationship as she helps him finish his manifesto and there are some hilarious dashes of romance thrown in that really spices things up.
Berensen’s narration for her presentation of a struggling artist is endlessly hilarious as Swinton’s performance filled with high-class remarks and one revealing mistake is just a gem. The comedic power dynamic between incarcerated artist Moses (Benicio del Toro) and his muse/security guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) is a ton of fun to watch and the crazy poses Simone does for Moses’ naked abstract portraits. Adrien Brody adds another layer of artsy hilarity as a determined art dealer who is laser focused on profiting off Moses’ “art” and there’s a chase sequence between the two that’s absolutely gut-busting.
Wright’s piece on police chief Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) is truly the best of them all and Anderson makes the right call in having this delightful caper nearly end the film. The story as a whole has some hilarious bits but none of them even compared to the animated segments that look amazing. They evoke the animation of “The Adventures of Tin-Tin” and are full of gleeful chase sequences and stunning visuals. It’s a great way to break up the visual storytelling and adds a jolt of energy that’s surprisingly action-packed. Also, after seeing Wright here and as The Watcher in “Marvel’s What If”, can we please get him to narrate everything because his voice is perfect and his performance as Wright definitely deserves some awards attention.
The only big issue with “The French Dispatch” as a whole, is that its three central stories don’t have the emotional depth that Anderson usually has with his story. There are certain parts to Moses’ tragic story of being a struggling artist and his relationship with Simone that are touching because of del Toro and Seydoux’s great performances. There are some moments with the revolutionaries and Zeffierelli that touch on a youthful sense of revolt and journalistic ethics. There are also some unexpectedly heartfelt final words between Wright and Nescaffier about enjoying new things in life. Even the final scene of the group mourning the loss of Arthur and coming together to give him a proper sendoff leaves a good emotional punch. However, none of the stories really leave a big emotional wallop and they certainly pale in comparison to Anderson’s other works. Krementz’s story of revolution doesn’t feel conclusive or leave lasting thoughts to ponder on and the other two have fun antics, but no real emotional weight. They’re fun and have plenty of good moments, but never feel like they reach their narrative or thematic potential.
Regardless, Anderson not only succeeds in delivering a delightfully comedic ode to “The New Yorker”’s distinct style of storytelling, but also creates a film that embodies who he is as a filmmaker. “The French Dispatch” is easily one of the funniest films of the year and one of Anderson’s most visually and narratively intricate stories yet.