Image: The wide cast of characters of The French Dispatch magazine [Source: Google]
Set in a fictional town in France, following a series of stories from renown journalists. The French Dispatch magazine brings to you a eclectic mix of tales, styles and formats in all their Wes Anderson-esque glory.
As a self referring fan of Wes Anderson. Who can confidently state he has seen all of Wes Anderson’s films and found something in them all if I did not just outright love them. I came out of the French Dispatch feeling somewhat deflated. The film is a alleged ode to journalists and journalism. It can definitely be sensed as such, as the narrative does not take any overarching shape, instead like you might find in a magazine, there are multiple stories, varying in tone and structure that have wildly different plot focus. You might be exploring crime cooking in one section and genius artists the next. Anderson has captured the feel of a magazines varying stories and centrepieces with ease. But. Is that really so extraordinary, off the top of my head I cannot recall a film that has broken itself down to multiple different stories but I can confidently say I imagine its been done before. Anderson certainly makes them beyond interesting, each story and writer could have extended and been a film of their own. Benicio Del Toro’s genius artist incarcerated in a prison had all the hallmarks of a typical Anderson feature film. But the story ends just as quickly as it gets going.
As mentioned the real problem I had with this broken down style, while certainly fitting the ode to journalism, is that the overarching story was simply not there. Bill Murray’s character whose name I cannot even recall or even be bothered to look up, as well as the Dispatch building and its staff are merely set dressing that fade completely into the background, going unnoticed and with little to no detail or care from Anderson or audience. Frankly it means there is no overarching narrative to the film, none of the stories coincide or link together in a cohesive way. By the end of the picture you feel as though instead of watching The French Dispatch, you have watched three distinct short films from Wes Anderson.
That feeling is something that I also found to carry across through the entire picture. This real did feel like Anderson was experimenting and trying new things and himself. Not wholly experimental but certainly Anderson at his most freewheeling and chaotic. For example a big thing you will notice off the bat if you’re familiar with Anderson’s work is the choice to have majority of the picture be filmed in black and white. I can only imagine this is to convey the parts that are the ‘black and white’ of the text on paper. But Anderson plays fast and loose with it, often switching back to colour for a shot or a scene mid way through a black and white segment. It’s strange, certainly for Anderson whose may staple through his style is his use of colour. One can only imagine this may have been to test himself – “can he make beautiful shots without all the wonderful use of colour” perhaps. This freewheeling experimentation goes further, Anderson who has dabbled in animation for whole features before this, makes use of animation throughout the film, almost as a way of showing the comic strips that are being referred to in the narration but also could be his way of testing this back and forth between animation and live action. Essentially there is a lot of bobbing and weaving, a lot of criss crossing and experimentation happening across the entire picture. While I delight in Wes Anderson harnessing his full creative spectrum like the mad artist in his first story, it does make for an experience of watching a process. It makes the French Dispatch feel like a tester, a precursor to Anderson’s next great feature, where these tests of himself and of style are put behind him and refined.
It’s that very same style that here fitting with the freewheeling nature that goes over and beyond. Any fan or familiar with Anderson knows exactly what it looks like, sounds like and feels like when talking about Anderson’s style. And here it’s cranked up to 11. While for the most part it’s full revelry, every whip pan, perfectly symmetrical framing and larger than life dressed character is an absolute joy as Anderson holds no bars. There are elements and moments of, well, over indulgence. The easiest for me to point out would be the dialogue. 90% of this movie I couldn’t tell you what they were actually talking about because its all, the finite details of a pack of matches or the statistics of a cities inhabitants or the works of a fictional artist. Normally these do appear in Anderson’s films, they are part of his charm and his style, usually they are part of a great joke or to swiftly and interestingly lend depth to a character. Here however, aside from the odd couple that manage to come across as a laugh, the rest feel like the tedious explaining of someone trying to world build by emphasising every trivial aspect of everything you encounter.
The French Dispatch is an echo of that, its Anderson at his most freewheeling, some may revel in that. But for me sadly Anderson finally tipped over the edge and as a result The French Dispatch is all style over substance. I can hope that perhaps more viewings may illuminate some of the deftly woven subtext that Anderson usually instills in his pictures. But while usually Anderson’s films are joyful and poignant viewings, for me it hurts a little to be so disappointed by The French Dispatch, having to tell people as such also. I can only hope this review sounds like I meant to write it this way on purpose.