Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Roman Coppola and Jason Schartzman
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schartzman, Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Lea Seydoux, France McDormand, Timothee Chalamat, Jeffery Wright, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Almaric, Stephen Park, Liev Schieber, Williem Dafoe and Saorise Ronan
The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest, long-delayed effort, plays like a companion piece to 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a period piece with a fictional European setting that features diegetic storytelling which illuminates an array of colourful characters and zany situations. However, while Grand Budapest is seen as a contender for Anderson’s best work, The French Dispatch is Anderson in minor key. His auteurial heft is to be witnessed in abundance, but rarely does he let the audience warm to his characters for long enough to become emotionally involved in the film.
The reason for this lies within the story’s structure. Anderson segments his film into four distinct parts. Arthur Howitzer Jnr. (Bill Murray) is editor-in-chief of The French Dispatch, an American magazine publication based out of Ennui-sur-Blase in France circa 1950s. He is a figure committed to publishing great writing and great journalism. We learn of his death early in the film. After a brief and idiosyncratic tour through Ennui-sur-Blase, the audience is treated to three stories, which composite The French Dispatch’s final publication following his passing.
The first story ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ focuses on a criminally insane artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and a dodgy art dealer (Adrien Brody) who tries to make more off his genius, the second dives the audience into a Central European counterculture and the final story tells of a kidnapping of a young boy by way of food criticism. All of these stories are entertaining in themselves but strangely they don’t provide a satisfying whole. The performances are excellent by the vast array of cast members mentioned above, but no one gets enough screen time to really make any kind of lasting impression.
Anderson himself has described this film as a ‘love letter to print journalism’. More specifically to the New Yorker. Howitzer Jnr. is based on real-life New Yorker founder Harold Ross. The various journalists and storytellers in the film are apparently inspired by real writers and journalists for the New Yorker during this time period. In my ignorance I only point out that Roebuck Wright’s (Jeffery Wright) mannerism reminded me a little of James Baldwin.
A little like Quentin Taratino has done in recent times with Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), Wes Anderson seems determined to give us his own cinematic vision of history. Central Europe was a tumultuous time to say the least in the early to middle 20th Century, but you wouldn’t really know it from The Grand Budapest Hotel or The French Dispatch. Yes, there is violence and the peripheral threat of impending facism, but the tone of his films is largely whimsical and cartoonish. It’s a strange mixture that leaves the audience suspended between taking the themes of the films seriously or enjoying the films for their quirkiness alone. If it’s the latter, then it begs the question, what’s the point? Does his aesthetic alone make his film’s worthwhile? I would argue in the negative. However, there are times when Anderson creates a balance between the two. The French Dispatch sadly isn’t one of them. It represents an auteur doing exactly what he wants, which of course is a good thing, it just doesn’t automatically result in a good film.