'The French Dispatch': A Loving Ode to Art and The People Who Create It
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Wes Anderson has made a name for himself as one of today's most well-known filmmakers. From his humble beginnings as an indie darling, his distinct style has led to great acclaim and accolades, and has cemented his place in film history. I personally have always enjoyed Anderson's work, and I would consider his films to be among some of the more formative in my journey as a film lover. I specifically remember seeing commercials for The Royal Tenenbaums as a kid, and being very curious about it, despite being too young for it at the time. I ended up watching it as a teenager, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it changed my life. Anderson's use of symmetry, color, and eccentric characters was unlike anything I had ever seen at that point, and I was immediately obsessed. I quickly watched all of his other films he had made up to that point, and I am always excited when we get a new film from him. Despite this, I couldn't help but be a little nervous when I first heard about The French Dispatch. I was particularly concerned that this was to be an anthology film, as I typically don't care for those, and the fact that I was a bit underwhelmed by Isle of Dogs when I saw it in theaters. I still held out hope that he would pull this one off, however, and while I can't speak for anyone else, I have to say that this film is one of the more effective anthology films I have ever seen.
The anthology film is a tricky feat, as they are made up of several different stories that must connect in one way or another. Some films connect their segments loosely, while others are interconnected. I personally feel that good anthology films need to have a good framing device to help with pacing and structure, and that this is usually the downfall of a lot of them. Most anthology films also use different directors to direct various segments, so there is usually a bit of unevenness in the finished product as a result. The French Dispatch manages to avoid both of these pitfalls by having it be fully directed by Anderson, and by having a surprisingly cohesive set of stories and recurring themes that make this a truly special film.
This film details the creation of the final issue of The French Dispatch, a newspaper based in the town of Ennui, France. Through this, we see three different stories. The first, titled The Concrete Masterpiece, follows a prisoner who takes solace in painting, and what happens when he becomes a surprise success. The next story, Revisions to a Manifesto, details a student protest, and the romantic exploits of its leader. And the final story, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner involves a chef who is asked to help rescue the son of a local Police Commissioner after he is kidnapped. Each of these stories is presented as a different section of the newspaper, and are connected both through the framing device, as well as themes of art and the lasting impact that it can have.
Each subject of the stories is an artist in one way or another. One is a painter, one is a writer and political activist, and another is a chef. The film has an interesting way of portraying the way their works impact others, as the stories are largely shot in black and white, but have bursts of color when we experience their art. We also explore their legacies, as each of them carry on into the future in one way or another. It reminded me a bit of The Grand Budapest Hotel, in that I see that film as an exploration of legacy, and how some people can live on through stories even after they die. The French Dispatch explores this as well, but in a much different way. We see how the protagonists of these stories manage to carry on, and we see how the writers of these stories are impacted by them as well. It's hard to fully discuss this aspect without getting into spoiler territory, but these running themes help tie the film together in a fascinating and rich way.
A common criticism of Anderson's work is that his films don't have any emotion. I disagree with this, as I feel his films consistently have rather emotionally resonant moments, just filtered through his unique style and the almost deadpan delivery his characters tend to have. This film is no exception, and has some moments that I found rather touching, and some that gave me a sense of melancholy. I also found myself smiling so much during the film, both because of the film's wit and humor, and because of some of the directorial choices that Anderson makes in the film. This film is just so delightful, and Anderson's style shines through beautifully.
The production design is spectacular, and the world Anderson creates here feels so expansive and specific. The town of Ennui is so detailed, and it is visually stunning. The use of eye-catching colors is a trademark in Anderson's work, and while this continues here, it's quite impressive how his style isn't hindered in the moments where the film is in black and white. We still get those distinct visuals, and they are still effective even without the use of color. We also get some great camerawork from longtime Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman, who once again captures Anderson's distinct visual style, and proves to be a perfect match for him.
As is the case for most of Anderson's films, this has an excellent ensemble of actors. This film in particular is a true ensemble film, as we only get a small amount of time to spend with each character. The cast is made up of Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Tilda Swinton (to name a few), as well as Anderson newcomers like Benicio Del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, and Stephen Park. There's not a bad performance in the bunch, but I was particularly impressed with Del Toro, who gives a rather restrained performance, while also making some bigger acting choices that end up paying off. I also like Jeffrey Wright's character, and felt that the segment that focused on him might be the film's strongest. He makes the character feel so distinct without going too big, and the scenes where he is telling his story on a talk show are excellent. I also enjoyed Léa Seydoux, Lyna Khoudri, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray in this film, as they are all quite great in their respective roles.
I have been seeing people say that this is one of Wes Anderson's lesser works, and I have to say that I don't quite agree with that. This isn't my favorite of his films, but it really hit me in a way I wasn't expecting. There are quite a few things happening under the surface that I found fascinating, and I'm curious to see if I uncover anything else on a second watch. This film has that comforting quality that Anderson's work tends to have, and the themes it explores really resonated with me. I can understand why some might not like this film as much, but I can't help but like it a lot. It's a beautiful exploration of what it means to be an artist, and how art can impact people in different ways. It's a bit of a deconstruction of the creative process, and it feels like Anderson is reckoning with the idea of how his work impacts the public at large. While this will differ depending on who you ask, I must say that his films connect with me and that I greatly appreciate his craft. This film manages to showcase his trademark style, while still allowing him to try new things. Much like any other work of art, this won't be for some people, but as a fan of Anderson's films, I can't help but admire it.