Review: Wes Anderson's Vibrant, Whimsical, and Poetic Style is Fully Alive in 'The French Dispatch'

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 14, 2021

'The French Dispatch'
'The French Dispatch'  (Source:Fox Searchlight)

Wes Anderson's visually vibrant, whimsical and poetic style is fully alive in "The French Dispatch," a film that was delayed for over a year because of the pandemic. The first two thirds of this tribute to the dying art of print journalism is on par with the best of his work ("The Royal Tennenbaums," "The Grand Budapest Hotel.") Alas, the final chapter, which should pack the biggest punch, fell flat for me.

Anderson's cine-milieu has always been an acquired taste, but most cinephiles have long ago salivated for these visually brilliant, sardonic studies in the eccentricities of human nature. "The French Dispatch" does not disappoint in look, tone, or witty repartee. The film is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative.

Structured along the same lines as a newspaper would be (or, at least, that attempt is made), the pic is narrated by Anjelica Huston (an Anderson regular) and centers on a fictional American newspaper, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, that publishes from the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. (Journalism folk will know the basis for The French Dispatch is The New Yorker.)

The narrative begins in 1975, with the obit for the well-respected editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (a swell Bill Murray), and then bounces all over in time, place, and space with famous actors in super-short cameos galore.

Blink and you'll miss Owen Wilson, who gives us a fascinating, if speedy and gruesome, tour of the French town, or Saoirse Ronan as a criminal, or Willem Dafoe as an accountant, or Christoph Waltz as... well, I'm not sure what he was actually doing in the film.

The first main sequence, titled "The Concrete Masterpiece," narrated from a podium by a rather odd Tilda Swinton (odd even for her), involves an abstract artist prison inmate (Benicio del Toro) and his muse of sorts, a prison guard (Léa Seydoux). Based on actual events, but then taken to a frenzied black comedy extreme, this segment was my favorite for its sheer insanity and strange love story.

Next up we have "Revisions to a Manifesto," which I also enjoyed. Lucinda (Frances McDormand) is a journalist writing about the activities of the oddball Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, with the perfect hair for this role and any Anderson film, period!) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), both involved in a youth revolt mirroring the real-life '68 revolution that shattered Paris. McDormand ends up sleeping with Chalamet. (I'm not sure why, but good for her.) Lucinda was based on a real journo, and there's an obvious homage to Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet," although I'm also not sure why.

The third segment, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner," seems to rethink queer Black activist James Baldwin as a food critic, played by Jeffrey Wright (or is he also based on someone else?). He then tells the story of the kidnapping of a talk show host (Live Schreiber) and then — well, I got bored. Thank heavens, Bill Murray interrupted that one quite a bit. Maybe on a second viewing this sequence will make more sense, and the rest of the film won't.

The sense of nostalgia created by Anderson is palpable. Every tech aspect is perfection, from Alexandre Desplat's evocative score, to Robert Yeoman's stunning cinematography, to Adam Stockhausen's lush production design. The actors were obviously delighted to be a part of the project. You could feel that. Even Waltz, who I believe had ten seconds of screen time.

I only wish Anderson had left some room to educate his audience a bit about the world he was depicting. Often, I felt like I needed footnotes. But I guess we could do our own research and then give the film a second look. Maybe the Blu-ray will come with an interactive guide — and an explanation about why Christoph Waltz was in the film.

"The French Dispatch" releases on Digital December 14
and Blu-ray™ and DVD on December 28.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.