Review by Kane Geary O’Keeffe
The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021) acts as the auteur’s typically pastelled love letter to old school journalism and the gritty field work that conjured the amazing tales previously found on the printed page. Ironically, Anderson achieves this by creating an anthology of scenarios which exist in such a heightened reality that they lose all sense of real world circumstance and spiral into indulgent fiction. Luckily for the viewer, said fiction is hugely entertaining.
The film depicts three of the best stories previously printed in the titular ‘The French Dispatch’ journal which is finishing its run due to the death of its owner (Bill Murray). As such, the narrative forms a chunky anthology with 3 central parts. Anderson has his whole cast firing on all cylinders here and the amount of big names the ‘Tweed King’ has managed to wrangle into this picture is staggering. The big standouts include Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, and Jeffrey Wright, who is owed a supporting actor Oscar-nom for subtly dominating the latter third of the film. In a surprising twist, Timothée Chalamet stands out as being a poor fit in ‘Wesworld’. It’s abundantly clear that Chalamet grew up watching Anderson’s films and has a preset idea of how one is ‘supposed’ to act in them, which results in a performance that comes across as particularly stagey. This is made more obvious by the fact that Chalamet plays opposite Frances McDormand, whose more naturalistic acting throughout the second of the film’s main vignettes makes ‘Timmy Tim’ look like one of the kids in the nativity play by contrast.
The film’s biggest issue is made apparent by its greatest strength, this being that the first of the film’s three main stories, ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, a tale of a depressed artist (del Toro) being exploited in prison, is just so much better than the latter two segments. The third story, ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’, which follows a journalist (Wright) caught up in the kidnapping of a police commissioner’s son, is also strong. Yet the bridging episode, ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’, which follows an undergrad revolution, is rather shallow in its ideas and not as interesting to watch. Benicio del Toro and Tilda Swinton also light up the first tale and are just so much fun to watch that it flies by, making the second story feel even longer by comparison.
Anderson tries a variety of artistic approaches across the film while never straying outside his more identifiable aesthetic choices. There’s a lot of jarring switches between colour and black-and-white that aren’t always justified, whereas other aspects such as an extended animated portion are very charming and beautiful to boot. The movie is also hilarious at many points, with a fantastic mix of physical comedy, irony, and wordplay to get a chuckle out of everybody.
The French Dispatch is far from atypical Wes Anderson fare, with amazing production design filtered through the picturesque streets of France combining with the director’s whole crack-team of actors bringing expectedly quirky characters to life. The film succeeds as a clear homage to what Anderson may consider to be a golden age of article publication. I do wish that Anderson and the stories he brings to life had a bit more to say, but the film is so well made and acted that I can enjoy the shallow thematic explorations for the aesthetic romps that they are.