Wes Anderson is a director who shouldn’t need an introduction. As one of the few, true auteurs actively working in Hollywood and certainly the most popular, his name has become shorthand for offbeat, idiosyncratic cinema, and drawn a legion of passionate followers. And for those same devotees, or even newcomers to his filmography, his latest picture is nothing short of enjoyable.
The year is 1975, and in the village of Ennui, France, an American literary journal known as The French Dispatch is about to publish its final issue ever. Among the articles planned for its pages are an essay from Ms. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro); details of a student uprising through the eyes of Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand); and the words of Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he recounts the kidnapping of a policeman’s son.
Anderson’s film is a visual depiction of these magazine stories, with each writer serving as a narrator for their respective pieces. All three reports are told from a contemporary perspective, with happenings in the present bathed in the auteur’s trademark pastels and those of the past in greyscale, which is occasionally livened by splashes of colour. While Anderson purists may bemoan a dearth of vibrant hues in these flashback sequences, the black-and-white photography is no less impressive, for the meticulous lighting and shading ensures a sense of artistry in every shot.
Being a Wes Anderson feature, the grey sheen applied to historic events is just one of many peculiarities to be found in The French Dispatch. Another worth noting is the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, previously utilised by Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel – as with that film, the director uses the tighter frame and subsequent lack of space to his advantage, imbuing affairs with an intimate and cosy vibe. The difference here is that the smaller ratio is employed throughout the narrative and only changes during particular sequences, such as when the picture is showing different points-of-view simultaneously.
To help realise his vision, Anderson has called upon the services of his favoured collaborators, including production designer Adam Stockhausen, whose adorable dollhouse aesthetics are visible throughout; costume designer Milena Canonero, who adorns every character in dapper, retro clothing; cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who shares the auteur’s eye for symmetry and detail; and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score retains the trademark playfulness of his previous efforts. The result, naturally, is a film that looks and sounds unmistakably like a Wes Anderson product.
It’s a feeling that’s reinforced by the ensemble cast, with most of its players having appeared previously in Anderson’s projects – among them Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston and Bill Murray, a mainstay of Wes’ filmography since Rushmore. Though the performances from all involved are memorable and faultless, the highlight is undoubtedly Jeffrey Wright, who exudes charisma and appears more than comfortable in his role, suggesting that he and Anderson shall have many more collaborations in the years ahead.
Because The French Dispatch contains so many of the motifs found in his previous works, comparisons with it and Anderson’s other movies are inevitable, and in most respects his latest fares well. This picture is wittier, more quotable and slightly more energetic than his preceding feature, Isle of Dogs, whilst also being lighter and breezier than his earlier output; yet the narrative here is less compelling than usual, lacking the intrigue and emotional heft of Anderson screenplays past. It would probably benefit from adding more impishness to its protagonists too, most of whom are bland and indistinguishable.
There has been criticism from some quarters about The French Dispatch being formulaic and too similar to Anderson’s prior films, but in this author’s view, such claims lack merit. Although this movie is never one to stray from that which has come before – and it certainly won’t change the opinion of the auteur’s detractors – Anderson does just enough set it apart from its contemporaries through the anthological plot, greyscale imagery and intermittent use of hand-drawn animation, ensuring he can’t be accused of lazily using the same old tropes in this instance.
The French Dispatch is yet another pleasurable turn from Wes Anderson, emanating with the distinctive visuals and quirky, irreverent humour for which he is renowned, and made even more resplendent by the settings, cast, and old-school touches. For strangers to Anderson’s work, it’s an ideal entry-point; for the converted, it’s a just reward for their dedication.
This review was first published by Rating Frames on February 3rd, 2022.