A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14 2022


2021, R, 108 mins.

Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer, Jr.  /  Benicio Del Toro as Moses Rosenthaler  /  Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz  /  Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright  /  Adrien Brody as Julian Cadazio  /  Tilda Swinton as J. K. L. Berensen  /  Owen Wilson as Herbsaint Sazerac  /  Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli  /  Léa Seydoux as Simone  /  Mathieu Amalric as Le Commissaire  /  Lyna Khoudri as Juliette  /  Steve Park as Nescaffier  /  Liev Schreiber as T.V. Host  /  Elisabeth Moss as Alumna  /  Edward Norton as The Chauffeur  /  Willem Dafoe as Albert 'The Abacus'  /  Lois Smith as Upshur 'Maw' Clampette  /  Saoirse Ronan as Principal Showgirl  /  Christoph Waltz as Paul Duval  /  Cécile De France as Mrs. B  /  Guillaume Gallienne as Mr. B  /  Jason Schwartzman as Hermès Jones  /  Tony Revolori as Young Rosenthaler  /  Rupert Friend as Drill-Sergeant  /  Henry Winkler as Uncle Joe  /  Bob Balaban as Uncle Nick  /  Hippolyte Girardot as Chou-fleur  /  Anjelica Huston as The Narrator (voice)  /  Denis Ménochet as Prison Guard

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson's THE FRENCH DISPATCH - his tenth film - has been self-described by him as a "love letter to journalists."  I would also add that its a love letter to his uniquely idiosyncratic style and probably represents the writer/director at the height of his power for making meticulously rendered hand crafted visuals.  

It's been an awfully long time since Anderson returned to the world of live action cinema (his last picture was the sumptuous stop motion animated ISLE OF DOGS from 2018, which was predated by one of the finest films of his career in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL from 2014), and there was certainly a tremendous amount of excitement for me heading into THE FRENCH DISPATCH.  The best accolade that I would bestow upon this film is that - in pure Andersonian fashion - it's as stupendously and artfully constructed as anything he's committed to the screen to date and shows him in complete command of his aesthetic might.  Unfortunately, when one goes beyond the look and feel of THE FRENCH DISPATCH it becomes a bit too easy to spot that design has overwhelmed the simple virtues of storytelling and drama this go around for the Texas born director.  I loved getting lost in the world of this film, but nevertheless felt that it was a work that pushed me to the outside and didn't allow for me to emotionally connect with it. 

Still, we get everything here that we have comfortably grown to expect from Anderson: An eclectic group of Hollywood A-listers bringing their best game faces; a storybook-like and deeply formal artifice that lovingly feels so tactile and hand crafted; a capricious edge mixed with searing pathos; and a distinct eye for centered compositions within the frame.  No other film out there looks like a Wes Anderson film, which is what gives his work such a distinguished stylistic footprint.  The film also cements Anderson's love for all things France by introducing us to the fictional French town of Ennui-sur Blase and its "French Dispatch" magazine (a fictionalized version of the New Yorker) that's headed up by editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (long term Anderson alumni Bill Murray).  Even though the paper originated in the editor's American birth town of Liberty, Kansas, The French Dispatch eventually migrated overseas to become truly established.  Tragedy strikes the newsroom when Howitzer dies suddenly of a heart attack, leaving everyone left to tend to his wishes in his will to immediately suspend the paper's publication after one last farewell issue.  This final publication will include three articles as well as an obituary for the fallen editor. 

What then commences is a three-part story structure, with each part reflective of one of the three aforementioned parts of the farewell magazine issue.  The first segment involves Herbsaint (Owen Wilson), a travel writer that details the proud history of the magazine's current base of operations.  The next section concerns art beat correspondent J.K.L. (Tilda Swinton) and her chronicling of a masterful, by criminally insane painter named Moses (Benicio Del Toro) and his troubled relationship with a prison guard, Simone (Lea Seydoux).  There's also an eccentric art dealer (Adrien Brody) that wishes to take on Moses and elevate him to high society cult status with his work.  Next up is a profile piece done by Lucinda (Frances McDormand) that is delving into student revolutions in Ennui and, in particular, gets quite intimate with one of these young leaders in question, Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet).  Lastly, we get a magazine segment with food writer Roebuck (Jeffrey Wright), who's penning an expose on a master of the culinary arts in Nescaffier (Stephen Park), but soon he becomes embroiled in the kidnapping caper orchestrated by The Chauffer (Edward Norton), who nabs the police commissioner's son.   



Right from the early get-go it's easy to see how Anderson is hypnotically (and some would say obsessively) in his creative element here, and most of the visceral pleasure to be had in venturing into any one of his films is to be transported and lost in his worlds built from the ground up.  Every tool in Anderson's trunk of offbeat delights is utilized here for maximum charming effect: We get cross sections of buildings and the comings and goings in and out of them that feel both real and fantastical at the same time.  There are also multiple aspect ratios used to delineate time and space.  We also get some playful usage of black and white and color cinematography to further delineate time and mood.  And, yes, there are even mad splashes of beautifully constructed animation (helmed by Gwenn Germain, who previously worked with Anderson on ISLES OF DOGS).  We even get stills and moving pages of the magazine within the film to denote the transition from one segment to the next, making the audience feel like their flipping through a living and breathing document.  The rich tapestry of the sights and sounds of THE FRENCH DISPATCH is predictably extraordinary; very few modern filmmakers outside of Anderson imbue such an unbridled joy into the fine craftsmanship that goes into their films.  And his worlds always feel both familiar and otherworldly and dreamlike at the same time. 

You also gain an equally potent sense of Anderson's fondness for this motley crew of strange and oddball misfits that populate his insular cinematic universes.  As is the case with just about any film made up of divergent vignettes, some work better than others here, and of the ones that I admired the most it was easily the saga of Moses and his artistic muse in Simone (watching Anderson submerge himself in the playground of B&W visuals - something not common for him - is an unending delight).  I also liked the segment involving Roebuck and the small crime saga that plays out within it (replete with those playfully engaging animated sequences).  The quirkiness quotient of THE FRENCH DISPATCH is exceedingly high, but this also forces me to step back to lob one of my more overt criticisms at this film by saying that for some of the vignettes that work sensationally well there are others that are a bit flat footed and drab.  Just look at how fun and fancy free Herbsaint's travelogue segment is compared to, say, the one involving Lucinda sleeping with Zeffirelli, the latter of which seems like it's from a whole other different kind of Anderson comedy altogether (it's also the least appealing and funny).  There's a legitimate moment in THE FRENCH DISPATCH when I asked myself why the entire film couldn't just be about Wilson's beret wearing and bicycle riding scribe taking us through all of the trendiest locales of Ennui-sur-Blase.  More often than not, Anderson seems to be either rushing from one segment to the next too hastily or allows one to go on longer than it should, leaving narrative momentum dragging.   

Also, for a film about journalists there's very little embellishment or understanding of their jobs here at all, or what the daily grind of running the magazine was like for the deceased editor (it's always great to see Murray in these films, but he seems a tad underutilized here in terms of screentime).  Another thing that dogged me all while watching THE FRENCH DISPATCH was that it covers such a staggeringly diverse group of people and settings that it became hard for me to latch onto any of them in any meaningful way.  I didn't find many of the personalities here to be memorably endearing.  Compare the characters here to those found in his best live action films (like MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL) and you're left seriously wanting more.  THE FRENCH DISPATCH is such an unmitigated masterpiece of production/art design and pure filmmaking technique that I feel that Anderson missed the boat a bit when it comes to the personalities all vying for attention here.  Sometimes, the exposition provided by the characters is so overwhelming as to the whole milieu of the magazine itself and its participants that I often felt like the film itself just simply needed to pause and take a breather before hurtling towards its next segment beat.  Maybe there's just too much going on here for the film's own good.   

It comes off like I'm being rather hard on THE FRENCH DISPATCHED.  Perhaps I'm doing just that, but coming after Anderson's career zenith work over the last decade it's hard not to be a tad disappointed with the end result here.  Of his ten pictures to date, this one doesn't occupy the lower or upper echelons of his finest output, but more or less someplace in-between.  THE FRENCH DISPATCH is made with the characteristic passionate swagger and wholly inimitable style that Anderson is the sole landlord over in the contemporary movie world.  Yet, so much attention has been obviously poured into constructing this film's look that character dynamics, drama and comedy were somewhat glanced over here.  As a cinematic formalist, I've always maintained that Anderson's approach throughout his career has been either of the love it or leave it variety.  I found it hard to latch onto and admire his films early in his career, but grew progressively fonder of his resume as the years have gone on.  I can definitely appreciate, though, how THE FRENCH DISPATCH might be even too weirdly impenetrable for even die hard Anderson fans, and on a level of meaningful human connection his film is undeniably lacking (I also found it to be his least amusing).  Don't get me wrong: I loved seeing the sights of the world of THE FRENCH DISPATCH, even if I didn't quite like the company of the people I was with at the time.  

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