The French Dispatch review: A charming Anderson anthology
James R | On 16, Dec 2021
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright
“Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” That’s the advice given by Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), the editor of The French Dispatch, a fictional magazine spun off from the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper. A hobby that seemingly accidentally grew into a home for talented but eccentric writers, the publication has offices based in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.
If the latter doesn’t clue you in on the fact that you’re watching a Wes Anderson film, the pastel colours, wry narration and precise production design make it abundantly clear from the off. But while the hallmarks and staples of the filmmaker’s oeuvre are all present and correct, The French Dispatch marks a surprise departure from convention for Anderson, as he assembles his first anthology.
A collection of three stories, ostensibly based on articles by the magazine’s writers, it spans an almost intentionally inconsistent jumble of genres, from heist and hostage thriller to art industry satire and student protest comedy. Accompanied by a travelogue-style profile of the French city, presented by a perpetually bicycling Owen Wilson, it’s an uneven bunch of vignettes and anecdotes, held together – naturally – by self-aware dialogue and overly stylised mannerisms.
The first chapter stars Benicio del Toro as Moses Rosenthaler, an artist who is at once a genius and criminally insane. He doesn’t let being behind bars stop his creative urges – he simply ends up in a twisted yet oddly sincere relationship with prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) and she becomes his muse. But his strange existence takes an unexpected turn when in walks art dealer Julian (Adrienne Brody), who has plans to turn Moses into the next big thing on the modern art scene. All this is narrated by Tilda Swinton as an arts correspondent with an amusingly awkward air and a matter-of-act delivery – a contrast that becomes more striking as Moses’ unusual new exhibition inevitably descends into farce.
Anderson has always had a knack for absurd physical comedy, something that found a natural home in his stop-motion outings Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr Fox and gave a clockwork-like hilarity to the slapstick of his best film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. If Isle of Dogs suffered from not having enough going on, though, The French Dispatch has the opposite problem. Chapter two sees Timothée Chalamet play young revolutionary Zeffirelli, who is busy making revisions to his manifesto – while also being profiled by journalist Lucinda (Frances McDormand). We move swiftly along to this instalment without much pause, but the haphazard pacing leaves each segment feeling either underdeveloped or indulgent.
Fortunately, the third outing is the strongest of the lot. That’s partly thanks to its subject matter – a reporter tries to profile legendary chef Nescaffier (Steve Park), only for a kidnapping plot to throw the whole thing into darkly funny and perilous disarray. The secret weapon here is Jeffrey Wright, who steals the whole show by delivering Wes Anderson dialogue in his own musical, rubato way.
By leaning away from the way every other cast member tackles Anderson’s familiar clipped speech and even in the way he walks casually through the sets, he brings a poignant, lived-in pathos to his character (the brilliantly named Roebuck Wright), melancholically reflecting on food, love, acceptance, familiarity and companionship. It’s a quietly mesmerising moment that gets to the heart of what The French Dispatch is about: the joy of savouring words as they’re shared with an audience, whether that’s in writing or on a screen. It goes some way to ending the whole anthology on a charming note – and almost sounds like he wrote it that way on purpose.