Wes Anderson is nothing if not consistent. While his approach to his brand of filmmaking has been refined since his debut 25 years ago, the Andersonian flourishes remain. His perfect framing, the use of every aspect ratio he can muster, and indeed every element of filmmaking comes together to create a distinctive appearance with each passing feature. The French Dispatch, then, feels like a checkpoint in his career as he borrows from himself throughout his newest feature in a charmingly quirky anthological trip through a fictitious French town.
Framed by the final issue of the titular newspaper following the death of its editor-in-chief, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), The French Dispatch offers a whistle-stop glimpse at life in Ennui-sur-Blasé, a remarkable little town with far more beneath the surface than meets the eye. Isolated stories of art, politics, and food (tangentially) set the stage for typically precise observations on life from the American auteur as he calls upon the talents of arguably the most talented cast ever assembled.
Where better to begin than with the remarkable ensemble? Despite their relatively short screentime, each actor is reliably delightful during their turns, with old Anderson favourites like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson effortlessly translating the screenplay’s fast-paced idiosyncrasies, entirely at-ease with the energy required by A Wes Anderson Film. There are laughs aplenty throughout The French Dispatch, delivered frequently with absolute sincerity as the humour comes from the well-established universe in which the town exists. Wilson’s early observations on the locals offer a brilliantly dry, hilarious insight into the town its principal stories take place and passing comments on the “church boys drunk on the blood of Christ” elicited genuine belly laughs from the viewing audience (myself included). Murray, meanwhile, is unusually restrained in his minimal screentime, playing the role of EIC as seriously as required to contrast its larger-than-life stories, though his input consistently augments the stories we’re told as his addendums add splashes of colour to their normally monochrome tales.
In its three feature articles, each given their own beautifully designed title-card, performances are as terrific as you’d expect from its A-list cast. The Concrete Masterpiece focuses on the forbidden romance between prisoner, murderer, psychopath, and artiste Benicio Del Toro and his guard and artistic muse, Léa Seydoux. Del Toro’s Moses, free from the shackles of whatever speech impediment he had in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is wonderfully charming beneath the dishevelled appearance of someone 10 years into his life sentence, transmitting a type of allure able to overcome the straitjacket that binds him and enchant Seydoux’s Simone. Seydoux, meanwhile, is equally delightful, her confident but stoic nature cracking as she grows closer to Moses as they unlock his hidden talents. Adrien Brody, meanwhile, the art dealer intent on buying Moses’ artwork, is the star of this segment, with thoroughly entertaining moments and lines delivered as perfectly as one would expect from a man in his fourth Anderson feature, the highlight of which is his interruption of a court case anticipating the rules be similar to that of someone objecting to a wedding (another belly laugh moment).
Revisions to a Manifesto, or “The One with Timothée Chalamet,” is the weakest vignette of The French Dispatch, though the star power of Chalamet does manage to elevate the segment higher than its middle-of-the-road story deserves. Almost in direct contrast with his performance in Dune, likely playing in the screen next door at the cinema, Chalamet’s Zeffirelli is bursting with life, his cool, confident exterior at odds with his evidently fragile psyche as he’s put under a microscope by the observant Lucinda (McDormand). It’s a shame, though, that McDormand is given less to do than Chalamet, her performance relegated to a watchful gaze upon the story unfolding before her in a bid to preserve her journalistic integrity. In character it may be, but more interaction between the new-kid-on-the-block and the multi-award-winning veteran would certainly have helped the film’s least engaging story.
Finally, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner sees a return to form for Anderson as he manages to equal the brilliance of The Concrete Masterpiece, less humour on show but a more melancholic self-reflection guided by a marvellous Jeffrey Wright. If the first is an ensemble piece, this is a one-man show with Wright’s cadence of delivery and subtle musings on a life well-lived utterly mesmerising, despite the cartoonish criminal antics that surround him. “Love the wrong way,” he posits, “and you’ll find yourself in great jeopardy” is one of The French Dispatch’s several lingering sentiments that pierce the film’s charming exterior and a rare moment of dialogue not written on the pages of the newspaper, one Jeffrey Wright delivers quietly and brilliantly to directly challenge his newspaper office’s strict no crying policy.
As you’d expect, The French Dispatch is full to the brim of delightful little touches to flesh out its unique world as well as utilise all-manner of storytelling devices to encourage you to scan every pixel of his inch-perfect frame. Through several extended scenes of French dialogue, the subtitles add character to each line, with in-parenthesis comments unsaid by the characters expressing their inner thoughts (I knew my French degree would come in handy). Anderson uses picture-in-picture shots to distract and delight his audience, a bribe counter as several guests sneak their way into prison, or shots of perfectly crafted plates of food as a police siege plan is laid bare. Every camera movement is as meticulously planned as you’d expect, with dolly zooms and horizontal tracking shots aplenty, but most notably, each of its main stories is injected with a single handheld shot – rarely seen in Wes Anderson’s filmography – to indicate a shift in momentum for both story and character. There are dozens of features that could be mentioned here, including animated sequences, fourth wall breaks, and one-takes, but we’d be here all day to discuss all of them.
Tying all the controlled chaos together is quite delightful score from regular collaborator Alexandre Desplat. Refraining from huge flourishes of orchestral magic, Desplat’s piano-led score twinkles softly beneath the action, lightly increasing its beats per minute without losing the softness of the overall tone to compliment any high octane moments, but it’s the type of pitch-perfect score that compliments every scene, borrowing inflections from stereotypically French café music, and I’m almost certain there’s a bar or two lifted directly from Les Misérables’ Red & Black to accompany a handmade barricade in the middle of the town.
There are so many more elements to The French Dispatch just begging to be explored, much like the impossible task of discussing every performance from such a gargantuan cast. The production design deserves all the praise in the world as every street, building, room, wall is dripping with detail to colour its world further, with the delightfully labyrinthine interior of the police headquarters a personal favourite, though even the simplest of frames alluding to a truly lived-in world, with fictional books littering the newspaper office alluding to the countless issues The French Dispatch has sold over the years. The consistently funny screenplay, packed with jokes that only work within the context of Blasé-sur-Ennui, is sure to put The French Dispatch in the conversation of being the funniest Wes Anderson film to date.
The French Dispatch’s individual elements come together to create a film that just fires on nearly every cylinder, with only the lukewarm political segment letting the film down somewhat, though even that has its fair share of great moments. A lesser filmmaker could have fumbled the film’s multitude of spinning plates, but The French Dispatch is a showcase of a filmmaker in total control of his film, understands what he’s great at, and uses his spellbinding cast to the best of their abilities. Put simply, this is Anderson at his most Anderson, and he’s having the time of his life.