Is the French Dispatch Wes Anderson’s best film? I don’t think so. I enjoyed an evening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London which covered all of Wes’ films and advertisements up to and including The Grand Budapest. It was a delightful evening and helped me appreciate the full panoply of Wes’ genius. I feel at this stage that Wes has achieved everything he wants to cinematographically and is at the stage where he is having fun. The film is split into three distinctive chapters, none of which are really linked. It felt to me like a concise The Meaning of Life – itself a string of collected sketches with a vague almost superfluous backing direction.
Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer Jr., the editor in chief of The French Dispatch
Tilda Swinton as writer J. K. L. Berensen
Owen Wilson as writer Herbsaint Sazerac
Adrien Brody as art dealer Julian Cadazio
Benicio Del Toro as Moses Rosenthaler, an imprisoned artist
Léa Seydoux as Rosenthaler’s prison guard and muse
Frances McDormand as journalist Lucinda Krementz
Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary
Lyna Khoudri as Juliette, a fellow student rebel
Jeffrey Wright as food journalist Roebuck Wright
The main premise of the film is that the editor of the French Dispatch, a newspaper, has died. His will contained a stipulation that the paper would be disbanded. Therefore the film shows how three journalists from the film put together articles for the final issue. The first ‘bit’ of this colourful triumvirate showed an enigmatic Owen Wilson, playing Herbsaint Sazerac, cycling around Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictitious French town. He sets the scene for the film beautifully.
The movie takes the form of the magazine’s final issue, which features Howitzer’s obituary; a brief travelogue by a writer named Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which shows, in a thumbnail sketch, how the publication’s tone and substance has evolved; and three long feature articles. The features, each running about a half hour, catch the grand preoccupations and varied subjects of the magazine’s writers, and the combination of style and substance that marks their literary work—and Anderson’s cinema. New Yorker
The first element of the film is strong, telling the tale of an artist in a mental asylum making sensational art with his muse, one of the prison officers. Tilda Swinton narrates this part in admirable fashion, bringing her full weirdness. The performance reminded me of the sterling job she did as Mancunian train warden in Snowpiercer. She and Wes are indeed uniquely suited for one another.
The first section, a portrait of a criminally insane artist (Benicio del Toro), is a sly pleasure, not least because it’s narrated by Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen, a fabulously glamorous creature with buck teeth, a tangerine evening dress and the tantalising hint of a scandalous past. Guardian
The third element was a little contrived for me, telling the story of a chess loving, cheroot smoking student activist and his journey for some left wing ideal of other. In the process we get to see Timothée Chalamet in bed with Frances McDormand and other disturbing sights. There is a resplendent moment when he is on a motorbike with Lyna Khoudri, riding away, the lighting and slow motion of this film captures the beauty of juvenile freedom, likely based in ignorance, and the fresh untainted sheen of young love. A stirring moment which probably ranks as one of the high points of the film.
“The French Dispatch” contains an overwhelming and sumptuous profusion of details. This is true of its décor and costumes, its variety of narrative forms and techniques (live action, animation, split screens, flashbacks, and leaps ahead, among many others), its playful breaking of the dramatic frame with reflexive gestures and conspicuous stagecraft, its aphoristic and whiz-bang dialogue, and the range of its performances, which veer in a heartbeat from the outlandishly facetious to the painfully candid. New Yorker.
Finally, the third segment comprises “a food review turned heist thriller narrated by and starring Jeffrey Wright at his most mellifluous and charming (Guardian)”. This was the best part of the film, and I am not saying that only because I run a food ish blog. This was an exciting segment with rich sumptuous shots, with a mixture of live action and animation. The script was fantastic, the tension done perfectly, and the culinary direction was quite spectacular. This was all the more personal for the discussions of difficulties of being homosexual and black at the time the film was set, as well as the harrowing prospect of living in exile in Ennui, something Wright and the head chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) discuss towards the end of the segment.
Wright tells his story from the stage of a TV talk show (the host is played by Liev Schreiber, with a brilliant deadpan reserve), where he proves his “typographic memory” by reciting his article verbatim. It then gets dramatized onscreen, with Wright talking to the camera as the events unfold. New Yorker.
Overall, while I was dazzled by the visual artistry and delivery of this film, I can’t say it was my favourite Wes film. My favourite is, of course, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There were visual delights and monstrously strong elements in this film but it lacked a certain soul and direction. It was, as I have written, a pastiche of Wes-isms and an insightful journey into what an artist can achieve post-success.