There are auteurs in film. Directors, sometimes writers and cinematographers, occasionally heads of special effects departments, that impact their projects in ways that make them immediately identifiable. Michael Bay and his rapidly rotating close shots, smash mouth action, and borderline humor. JJ Abrams and his mystery box plot structure and copious lens flare. Tarantino’s hyperviolence, excessive language and fast talking. That’s just a few. Video games have a few of their their own (Kojima, Druckmann, Cage) but the imprint is often smaller. Save for Hideo Kojima, really. Go to enough movies, you are likely to start noticing directors have tendencies, pockets, happy places. Wes Anderson’s happy place may be one of the most unique in the business.
Anderson’s films, ten in total when you count The French Dispatch, are kitschy, unabashedly indie, artistically specific, and unmistakably Wes Anderson. He has a cadre of performers that follow him around: Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Adrian Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, the list seemingly goes on. He has his people. See enough of them in one place and you have stumbled upon a Wes Anderson movie.
In The French Dispatch, you will meet all of these actors in the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (translating to “Boredom on Indifference” loosely), a fake French town and home of the French Dispatch, a small print magazine not far from the New Yorker, but more on that later.
This film focuses on the final issue of the French Dispatch, a French foreign bureau of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. It is, then, a collection of short stories pulled from the pages of that very last issue, occasionally dipping back to the Dispatch itself to walk you through its halls, meet its editors, and observe their interactions with the Editor in Chief, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Murray). The film moves from story to story by introducing the piece in the Dispatch, complete with cover art, as well as page numbers. Those stories are as follows: “The Concrete Masterpiece” by J.K.L. Berensen, “Revisions to a Manifesto” by Lucinda Krementz, and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” by Roebuck Wright.
Each story is told with unique uses of light, color, and style. There is even an animated segment of the last story that is heavily referential of the French style of ligne claire, that viewers may recognize from French artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) or perhaps the form’s pioneer Hergé, famous for his Adventures of Tintin comics. Truly, throughout each of these stories, it was hard for me to not find myself mesmerized by the number of fully modular sets, camera sweeps, uses of frame symmetry, the intentionality of his imagery. The short stories of this film are opportunities for Anderson to flex his imagination, something he is known quite well for, and as a result each living tableau, stage prop, sight gag, camera pan, and actor nuance feels purposeful.
It’s honestly hard to keep from gushing about The French Dispatch. Everything I want in a movie is here. Mystery, intrigue, drama, comedy, romance. There is action and stillness, sound and silence. There are scenes of tremendously written, quick and witty dialogue, and then there are scenes where silence and Timothée Chalamet’s face are allowed to tell the story all on their own. And that is the other thing that continued to bug me days after my initial viewing, how in the world is Anderson so capable of getting precisely the performance he needs from so many performers? Willem Dafoe is good, even in silence. Jeffery Wright, whom I recently saw in No Time To Die, is perhaps at his very best here, giving long expository takes that are noticeably well scripted and expertly improvised at the same time. Adrian Brody is kooky and excellent. Frances McDormand’s portrayal of an embattled journalist is coupled with a believability not many performers can lend. The French Dispatch is a masterwork, which yes, feels preachy to say. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, find a good reason to complain. Everything just works so well.
And that leads me to my final point. The French Dispatch is described by Anderson as a “love letter to journalists” and his influences are clear. I mentioned the New Yorker before, but upon doing research, this film wasn’t just trying to crest an air similar to the esteemed magazine, many of its characters, in fact even some of its stories, are homage to real people and the stories they have covered for the New Yorker. Even the French Dispatch covers, shown during the credits, are referential New Yorker covers.
The French Dispatch is a tremendous film full of quirky character, devilishly charming and disarmingly amusing throughout. This is Anderson at his best, which may be a phase that he maintains rather than a singular achievement. A delight to view and a joy to unpack. | Caleb Sawyer