Just when you thought Wes Anderson couldn’t be more Wes Anderson, he goes and makes The French Dispatch. If you love the director’s unique brand of whimsy then spending a couple of hours inside that brain of his will be a treat. Anyone else? Well, you probably are staying as far away from The French Dispatch as possible. But even the most devoted of Anderson’s fans may find this film to be too precious for its own good.
I won’t use the tired “style over substance” to describe The French Dispatch. Substance isn’t the problem, lack of emotion is. Personally, I’ve found Anderson’s films to be completely lacking in genuine adult human emotion, which explains why his best work either involves animals or kids. But here, telling a story about the titular fictional French newspaper in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (in English “boring on apathy”, an apt description), Anderson gives fully into the anthology format. His star-studded cast of Anderson regulars and a few new recruits, take part in little stories that amount to articles in the final issue following the death of its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr.
Pitched as a tribute to journalists, The French Dispatch isn’t really that at all. The Post is a tribute to journalism and journalists. The Paper is, too, and so is Spotlight. That’s not what this is. It’s Anderson’s love letter to the New Yorker, or at least what he liked about it. Unsurprisingly, he liked all the really quirky shit. Murray’s firm-but-fair edtior Howitzer is based on New Yorker founder Harold Ross. Owen Wilson, in one of the film’s skippable interludes, plays a travel writer based on Joseph Mitchell. Wilson’s character bicycles through the city waxing semi-poetic about everything he sees, to ridiculous detail. The French Dispatch is so shrug worthy I almost broke a collarbone.
The stories are divided into multiple sections that represent pieces of the magazine issue: three feature articles, an obituary for the editor, and Wilson’s aforementioned travel guide. To Anderson’s credit, the film genuinely feels like you’re thumbing through the pages of a newspaper supplement, think the Parade section of The Washington Post. Each chapter has its own unique feel and style, with Anderson doing his usual Anderson things: flipping the aspect ratio, transitioning to animation, and employing frequent use of storybook-style production design. There’s no denying Anderson’s directorial gifts are with his stunning visuals and singular aesthetic. Nobody makes movies that look like his. Nobody.
But each story in The French Dispatch feels completely disconnected from human emotion, and not even the Oscars-level talent can save them. The first story stars Benicio Del Toro as an artistic prison inmate, with Lea Seydoux as a prison guard and his muse. Adrien Brody plays an art dealer who discovers his work and struggles to work with the eccentric prisoner, who is suicidal due to his unrequited love for Seydoux’s character. Shot in black and white with splashes of color for the art pieces, it’s the one section of the film that is both visually and emotionally inert. Tilda Swinton blandly narrates the story from a podium to a crowd of on-lookers who might as well have been sleeping. They know what’s up.
The second has its cheeky moments but has too much going on to properly engage with. Frances McDormand is the author of this story and also one of its central figures, as she romances a young revolutionary played by a wild-haired Timothee Chalamet. What’s he fighting for? Something Anderson-y, I don’t know. The filmmaker is giving a nod to the 1968 students protests, or the May 68 student occupations, but he isn’t really interested in them, just telling an off-centre story that makes it seem like he’s interested.
The third story is the best only because of the incredible Jeffrey Wright, who brings a James Baldwin-esque wisdom and gravitas to the role of Roebuck Wright, a food critic discussing a kidnapping from years earlier. The story is utterly pointless but Wright, playing one of the VERY rare characters of color in a Wes Anderson movie, gets a moment to discuss his experience as a gay Black man in Paris and it’s mesmerizing for feeling like it should be in a totally different movie.
Putting together a starry ensemble usually suggests a slew of great performances but Anderson makes himself the exception in this, too. Other than Wright, nobody does anything memorable because Anderson does not create characters audiences can connect with. They are paper cut-outs in the Wes Anderson pop-up book called The French Dispatch, and luckily for us, its only got one issue and will soon be out of print.
The French Dispatch opens on October 22nd.