November 5, 2021 | LIFE | By Annie Knight | Photo by Emmaline Hawley
Wes Anderson, perhaps one of the best-known filmmakers in the U.S., is beloved for his distinct visual style in films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the “Royal Tenenbaums.” The arrival of his latest film, “The French Dispatch,” has had fans flocking to the theater since its release.
As “Budapest” and “Moonrise” are some of my favorite films, I too joined the crowds gathering to watch “The French Dispatch” this past weekend. However, despite my high expectations, I found Anderson’s most recent film to be his weakest, while simultaneously being the most ambitious project he’s undertaken to date.
“The French Dispatch” is an anthology, a departure from Anderson’s usual storytelling format. Instead of one continuous plot line, the film is broken up into four sections. Centering around one magazine, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, the film brings to life events from four articles, each featuring a new adventure and cast of characters.
These sections of the film are framed by the passing of the magazine’s founder, prompting the creation of a special magazine issue and obituary where one of these four stories must be cut before publication.
Stylistically, I was impressed with the carefully composed shots in “The French Dispatch.” Typical of an Anderson film, there were vibrant pastels, elaborate set designs, and carefully planned camera movement. However, Anderson also pushed himself to create some of the more elaborate sequences I’ve seen in his work.
Here Anderson perfects the camera style he developed in films like “Moonrise Kingdom,” where backdrops moving behind the characters and a roving camera makes the viewer feel like they’re immersed in the turning pages of a storybook.
Despite this, there were also a few randomly motivated animated and black and white sequences that flawed this otherwise master class in shot composition.
With regards to the story, however, I felt that “The French Dispatch” fumbled into a plot line that neither I nor any of my movie-watching companions could follow. Since each story is framed from the perspective of the journalist writing the article, many of these filmic sections are stories within a story where the journalist will be recounting the past events of the article.
We see this on screen, in as many as up to three different forums like in the section entitled “the Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.”
With all these story layers, I eventually found myself not only not able to keep the characters straight, but also struggling to make sense of when and where they all are.
When I could make sense of the plot, I found the substance of some of the filmic sections to be boring and emotionally void. In “The Cycling Reporter,” a waste of the use of Owen Wilson, the story was nothing but a tour around the town with barely any conflict or excitement to speak of.
In “Revisions to a Manifesto” a bizarre love affair between a middle-aged reporter (Francis McDormand) and a young revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) weasels its way oddly and irrelevantly into a story about a student protest.
In addition to these odd plots, I found it difficult to connect with the characters. This feeling was likely not helped by each character’s screen time divided into fourths, flattening these characters that are already bizarre, closer to caricatures than people, in the Anderson filmic cannon.
The exception to this is the section entitled “The Concrete Masterpiece” featuring an enjoyably stern Léa Seydoux in a love story between a jailed artist and his prison guard muse that I found heartwarming, charming, and funny in the typical Wes Anderson brand of humor.
Compared to mainstream cinema in Hollywood, “The French Dispatch” may be considered high caliber. It is not unwatchable. Anderson’s attention to visual aesthetic, like always, shines through.
It somehow manages to wrap its far-flung stories together in the epilogue on an emotional note that left me somewhat satisfied in a film that for the most part made me feel next to nothing.
However, compared to Anderson’s other work, the film is not cohesive and drags on, even with its short one hour and 43 minute run time. While I appreciate the ambition on Anderson’s part in attempting to craft an anthology, I would suggest saving your money and tuning in to some of Anderson’s classics rather than spending ten dollars on seeing this one in the theater.
“The French Dispatch” is now playing at local theaters in Colorado Springs.