Wes Anderson is definitely one of the most unique directors working in Hollywood today.
Whether you love or hate his filming style you can always tell what is and isn’t a Wes Anderson film pretty easily. His love of framing shots like a painting or sets in a play or toy house, typically in flat angles that pan to the next scene in one semi-long take, all set to his trademark whimsy, weirdness, and of course a heaping helping of mise en scene ala French contemporary filming is often a joy to watch for fans such as myself.
His movies have steadily only gotten more elaborate as he has gained popularity among film viewers. His once modest budget with his first film in “Rushmore” is now dwarfed by his indulgence in later films such as “The Life Aquatic” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” He can now pretty much do whatever he wants and his movies are often a love letter to the genres and stylings of French filmmakers of the past and, at least for a fan like me, are consistently a treat to the eyes. His latest film “The French Dispatch” is another such love letter to cinema and journalism as well and while it’s not his best work, parts of it (a certain section in particular) are among his best at least.
“The French Dispatch” is a film about the titular newspaper whose editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. has suddenly passed away due to a heart attack. In his will, Howtizer Jr. has stipulated that three story favorites of his be republished in its final issue before ceasing publication. What follows are three detailed stories as narrated by the journalists who covered them and their own thoughts on their truly unique subjects in each.
For those who don’t know me personally, I’m a former journalism major from way back in the day. As you can probably already tell my journalism career never really took off. Many factors contributed to this which I won’t get into today, but I enjoyed my time as a writer and reporter for my school paper and the sparse freelance gigs I got after graduating. Most reporters make their name by reporting breaking news, but I personally always preferred and enjoyed long-form writing and human-interest stories. Getting to cover people in detail and getting to talk to them one on one about their lives and what motivated them for a story was always fascinating for me and the people I got to meet and get to know during this period was highly enjoyable.
That love for people and their unique stories and backgrounds are at the heart of “The French Dispatch.” The stories told in the film, though short, dive fairly deeply into its main characters. Each of them are narrated by the journalist characters involved with the story and we get to know them as well by that same merit. We have Tilda Swinton narrating the first, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” as a very yuppie American type character in by far the film’s best story involving an asylum inmate artist dryly and expertly played by Benicio Del Toro. Then we get Frances McDormand getting very intimately close with her subject in the student revolutionary Zeffirelli played by Timothee Chalamet in “Revisions to a Manifesto.” And the always talented Jeffrey Wright diving intimately in his own way on food in probably the film’s weakest but nonetheless enjoyable final story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.”
The film is wholesome and heartwarming as much as it is colorful and whimsical. It’s a treat to the eyes and even if you don’t care for Wes Anderson it’s hard not to respect the craft going on in the movie. Every frame, every scene serves a distinct purpose. No space in each shot is wasted in the slightest as even extras are given pretty specific movements and cues that you don’t often see in other movies. It’s surreal and fairytale like, like any Wes Anderson film, and you’ll likely find yourself smiling ear to ear throughout if not laughing your ass off at the film’s often dry yet absurdist humor.
All the usual suspects are here for a Wes Anderson film. Bill Murray getting to play a small but nonetheless earnest and memorable role. Owen Wilson getting another chance to add to Anderson’s trademark whimsy by setting the stage for the city of Ennui detailing all its strange but beautiful parts. And of course, our aforementioned journalists, played by a who’s who of old and new A-listers, within the French Dispatch itself being their quirky Wes Anderson versions of themselves in the best way.
An interesting thing this Wes Anderson film does is jumping back and forth between color and black & white filming. This framing communicates multiple things to the audience. The past, the present, the future. Old, young. Hope, happiness, dread, sadness. Joy, melancholy. The meaning never stays completely firm but somehow understood scene to scene and story and story and it’s an impressive feat pulled off by Anderson here.
Like all Wes Anderson films, the through-line of these stories is clearly about love. Love of people be it friends, family, or romantic and for Anderson himself a love of the unique, the weird, the quirky, and of life in general. Each of these stories could’ve easily been extended to be individual Wes Anderson films themselves and they may or may not have been better off if they were but they are nonetheless complete stories in their short and earnest timeframes. There is something truly sweet about each of them in their own way and fans of Wes Anderson will no doubt be satisfied watching each of them.
One of those stories, in particular, stands out the strongest however and that is “The Concrete Masterpiece” involving Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L Berenson chronicling the story of Benicio Del Toro’s mentally disturbed master artist Moses Rosenthaler and his subject and muse Simone played by Lea Seydoux. By far the funniest story in the film it is also its most romantically charged and often heartfelt.
Del Toro is great in pretty much everything he is in but here is truly exceptional working alongside Anderson. He plays a character that is sympathetic in a multitude of ways and unique in his approach to love and communicating, while also being fairly violent of course given how he got there. Though not much words are spoken between him and Seydoux’s Simone it’s a romance that is understood even though it is understated. The feelings of the characters and the scenes are communicated in ways that words couldn’t and it’s again a credit Anderson’s artistic stylings and whimsy that make it all possible.
Though it’s a short piece it is somehow one of Anderson’s best stories told. The enjoyment this story gives largely carries the rest of the film as you ride its high through the remainder of the film but that’s kind of why “The French Dispatch” doesn’t quite live up to the highs of films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for instance. Where that film is a long steady building climax to its dramatic conclusion, this one has its biggest moment early with “The Concrete Masterpiece” and loses steam steadily from there.
It’s kind of like if you were served a high-end steak dinner main course first before two smaller but still high-quality appetizers.
Perhaps Anderson knew the pacing would feel weak if he didn’t start with his funniest story first, but I found myself going from “This might be my favorite Wes Anderson film ever!” after “The Concrete Masterpiece” to “This is just a pretty good Wes Anderson film” by its end. The other two just aren’t as sharp, witty, thoughtful, or as entertaining as the first one and to be fair it is a very tough act to follow.
But by no means is this a bad film, in fact, it’s very good and worth watching for the first story alone. It’s still everything a fan of Wes Anderson should expect from him, and it’ll be hard to feel disappointed by the time the film’s credits roll. “The French Dispatch” is simply a fun Wes Anderson film that will leave you smiling, laughing, possibly even tearing up in spots, and frankly that’s all you can really ask for in a comedy.
“The French Dispatch” might not be up for many awards in the future as it is comparatively an overall weaker entry in Wes Anderson’s filmography but if you simply love watching a good story you’ll at least get three of them here.
4 out of 5