The French Dispatch
If “The French Dispatch” does anything right, it proves that Wes Anderson will never change his style. This at least gives audiences a chance to do some personal reflection on if showing up for his next film is worth it. Anderson, a so-called auteur, has created an esteemed career for himself by taking quirky stories and ramming them through his ruthlessly conservative style of symmetrical imagery and rigid formality. The result is hollow films with a facade of idiosyncrasy.
After returning to animation in 2018 with “Isle of Dogs,” Anderson induces audiences into another boredom–coma with “The French Dispatch,” his love letter to both journalism and France. The film is a storybook telling of three articles published by the Kansas-based publication, “The French Dispatch Magazine,” after the sudden death of the paper’s editor-in-chief (Bill Murray). The first two articles tell the story of stock Anderson characters — the insane artist in prison (Benicio Del Toro) and the manifesto-writing, French student (Timothée Chalamet). The third chapter is about Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), one of the few interesting characters in the movie and a man recounting a dinner he had with the Commissaire of the Ennui police force.
The ground-level problem with “The French Dispatch” is not a novel one for Anderson’s portfolio. It feels like Anderson hasn’t realized yet that the result of his style being all about rigid presentation and stilted dialogue is a hollow experience. Almost all of Anderson’s movies, from “Moonrise Kingdom” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” attempt to explore deep themes but to no avail, as human nature does not connect with emotionlessness. “The French Dispatch” is no exception.
For the cast, Anderson assembles some of the finest living actors — Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet and Léa Seydoux, among others — only to give them unclear, inconsistent direction. The writing around Del Toro’s character, a deeply disturbed artist imprisoned by the prison officer Simone (Seydoux), is downright confusing, as it contrasts with Anderson’s overly-dainty style. Watching Del Toro’s performance be captured by tonally incongruent filmmaking is a disappointment.
Chalamet’s performance is especially bad, likely because his natural acting style is very expressive. In “Call Me By Your Name” and “Beautiful Boy,” respective directors Luca Guadagnino and Felix van Groeningen liberalized Chalamet’s performances, allowing him to emote the lives of young men in his own way. Although having to slightly conform him to her scripts in “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig understood this as well. In “The French Dispatch,” Chalamet appears flat out confused, as his character is poorly written and the direction he receives is far too arty. Despite being literally French, Chalamet does not pass as the French character Anderson wrote for him.
Even the visual aspect of “The French Dispatch” is a letdown, which is unusual, as one of the few reliable things about Anderson was that he had something to say visually. “The French Dispatch” looks very nice, make no mistake. However, in comparison to the unbelievable animation in “Isle of Dogs” and the eccentric cinematography in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The French Dispatch” is phoned in. A shot in the middle of the movie features the camera operator messing up a pan, raising the question of if Anderson even bothered to ask for another take.
It’s all just a mess, brought together under a haughty guise that because nothing makes sense, it’s on the audience to roll up their sleeves and find some sort of meaning. Which, if history says anything, Anderson fans will always do.
“The French Dispatch” is a perfect example of the failures of modern art. It looks nice and has its own personality. However, in terms of substance, themes and performances, the film leaves everything else up to the audience. Once again, Anderson has oversubscribed to the philosophy of “the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”