The French Dispatch (2021), Wes Anderson [3/5]
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
The French Dispatch has all the usual bells and whistles of a Wes Anderson feature. The precise overhead close-ups, the forced symmetry, the trays of knick knacks, treats, and gadgets packaged as if in a comic strip, and of course a sarcastic, deadpan Bill Murray father figure. Dispatch takes us to the fictionalized French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé in a three-part anthology, first exploring a tortured artist and his opportunists, then the countercultural youth politics of the 60s, and finally a sensitive police rescue mission. Its sets are some of Anderson’s finest to date.
Whether they follow an anthropomorphic fox or a dysfunctional Manhattan household, Anderson movies play out in pastel-colored dollhouses sealed away from the realism of the world and charmed with a small town provincialism. But they — and Dispatch — are not romantic in the naive sense; people still smoke and drink, fail their spouses, and get abandoned by their families. Anderson movies take these broken characters and give them the varnish of a spectacular world. They are cinematic storybooks for aesthetes and wallflowers.
But with all these arts and crafts, Anderson movies face a tricky task of balancing aesthetic panache and compelling storytelling. Most are triumphant in this regard; the best tell their stories through their meticulous landscapes. When I first saw the Hungarian bath houses and pastel pastry shops of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I remember thinking I was unaware that a movie could take its viewer to a place like that, a place so peculiar and lost in time and yet universally modern and funny. I’ve seen all of his features and I’ve loved each one more than the last. The French Dispatch, unfortunately, has this balance out of whack.
In his well-intended flamboyance, Anderson stuffs the viewer on the junk food of window dressings without sating us with the main course of character arcs. He overstimulates us with dialogue, plot intricacies, and aesthetic shifts, forgetting to leave breathing room for the stories to impart their wisdom or charm. On a most fundamental level, the bells and whistles are so busy whizzing by the screen that the viewer can’t track the three separate vignettes and connect with the human element of each scenario.
It’s a shame too because there are some wonderful performances hidden beneath the clutter. Adrien Brody, playing neurotic and opportunistic art dealer Julian Cadazio, brings the same bungling intensity that he lent to Budapest’s Dmitri, but with double the wit. Many of his lines poke great fun at the pretensions of the art world and how its dealers foisted abstract art upon disinterested buyers in the name of supposed sophistication. Timothée Chalamet is a mustachioed firework as Zeffirelli, capturing all of the self-righteousness and romanticism of student revolutionaries in the 60s. For all their shortsighted conceit, Zeffirelli and his cohorts — like Lyna Khoudri as a steely-eyed but stylish Juliette — are redeemed by the fact that they genuinely want to make the world a better place; they just don’t know how to go about it.
And yet these great moments of wit and commentary are awash — especially in the third vignette — in jeering set pieces and overly complex transitions between past and present and live-action and animation. There’s simply too much going on — and not in a thrilling, maximalist sort of way like a David Fincher detective’s evidence board or a Michael Mann subway chase sequence — but in a way that pulls the characters from the viewer's grasp.
The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, infamously unimpressed with Stanley Kubrick’s supposed magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey, criticized him for an Erector Set style of filmmaking which prioritized awesome machinery over human storytelling. The French Dispatch can be accused of a similar misprioritization; it’s a movie as wide as an ocean but as shallow as a puddle. In her essay Trash, Art, and The Movies, Kael said 2001 was the biggest amateur movie of all time. I’m not sure I’d go that far for Dispatch; by all accounts it’s still a fun movie with stunningly crafted sets which would be considered the height of a lesser moviemaker’s filmography. But for the first time in a Wes Anderson picture, I feel he has obscured the heart of the story, not only with his busy visual composition but also with poor storytelling devices that alienate the viewer.
In an ideal world, Wes Anderson would have made a single feature length film from one of the vignettes, a pared-down but still stylish story that reached a greater thematic and emotional depth of one of the several tensions he teased out but never embraced. But as it stands, The French Dispatch is a largely forgettable faux-pas in an otherwise brilliant filmography from one of the greatest working directors today. 3/5 stars.