The French Dispatch: Wes Anderson’s Least Daring Publication

Designed by Zawar Ahmed

If recognizability is a virtue, then filmmaker Wes Anderson is a saint. At the start of his films, the screen contracts to a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (slightly wider than a square, customary of classic Hollywood), indicating a departure from the realm of modern cinema and a descent into Anderson’s universe of whimsy, symmetry, and stylistic perfection. His newest film, The French Dispatch, is no exception. It’s a smorgasbord of Anderson’s signature repertoire, complete with swaths of mustard yellow, split screens, dry humor, a star-studded cast of Wes Anderson regulars, stills begging to be circulated on Instagram, and precocious eight-year-olds in suits. Surely, Wes Anderson offers something unique that keeps audiences coming back for more. But as I sat through the 103 minutes of The French Dispatch this weekend, I found my mind wandering and my interest waning, and I began to wonder: what’s the point? It’s impossible to discredit Anderson’s singular style and technical virtuosity, but by the tenth installation in his filmography, the symmetry is starting to get old.

The French Dispatch brings to life an outpost of a fictional newspaper, The Kansas Evening Sun, based in the also fictional French city Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film’s titular publication, modeled after The New Yorker, covers art, culture, politics, and current events with a motley crew of writers and reporters. The film opens with the death of the newspaper’s editor, who, in his will, called for the disbanding of the paper after a final publication consisting of three articles from previous issues. It goes on to dramatize each of the three stories: first, an arts piece about painter Moses Rosenthaler who grew to worldwide prominence from the confines of a maximum-security prison; next, a politics piece about a local student-led revolution; and finally, a food-piece-turned-police-heist story about the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of a police chief’s son with the assistance from a renowned police station chef.

Each segment of the anthology proves, in its own way, to be dense, disjointed, difficult to follow, and rather dull. Each story is narrated by their respective writer in equally stilted prose; each contains superfluous nested subplots that drag on for so long that you lose sight of the primary story. By the middle of the second installment, I gave up on trying to follow the thematic turns and focused my attention instead on the cinematography. As is customary to Anderson’s work, there is no shortage of things to look at. Characters weave up and down the dollhouse-esque cross-section sets, disappearing through a door only to emerge in a window three floors above. Shots are meticulously framed and colors are saturated to perfection: a velvet purple tablecloth offsets a gleaming, sumptuous feast; a yolk-like yellow spotlight ignites Tilda Swinton’s fiery shock of ginger hair. At times, I became so hypnotized by the art direction that when I attempted to shift my attention back to the plot, I realized I missed crucial thematic turns. And often, I found myself wondering about the ultimate objectives of Anderson’s artistic choices.

The plot functions largely as a vehicle for the cinematography, yet the cinematography itself often feels haphazard and half-baked. Scenes alternate between black and white and color seemingly without any rhyme or reason. Sets are meticulously designed, yet they contribute very little to our understanding of the characters, towards whom I felt, at best, lukewarm sympathy. I also couldn’t help but feel uneasy about Anderson’s choice to apply his same precious artistic sensibilities to depictions of shoot outs and executions as to his portrayal of, for example, a quaint French café. Ultimately, the appearance and plot of the film emerge as two wholly different entities that exist more in opposition than in harmony. For a film about storytelling, it’s ironic that the stories themselves are subordinate to Anderson’s aesthetic.

The French Dispatch’s cast is almost comically star-studded with indie film royalty young and old. After watching Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Tilda Swinton (the list goes on) prance across the screen, I joked to myself that I was surprised Wes Anderson couldn’t get Saoirse Ronan on the project until, sure enough, she emerged in a seedy kidnapper’s lair for a five-minute scene at the end of the film. But, despite featuring some of the best actors of the century, I couldn’t help but feel that the performances left something to be desired. That said, I also don’t think it’s their fault. With every line delivered in the same clipped, sterile voice, the terse dialogue feels wasted on its actors. The characters themselves, similar to the plot, feel oddly trivial: more like vehicles for brilliant outfits and embodiments of a single trait rather than multidimensional people with nuance and depth.

I think that what I wanted most from this latest installment in Anderson’s filmography was a sense of risk-taking. The French Dispatch is certainly not bad; indeed, it accomplishes many things very well—an individual and consistent tone; unequivocally striking visuals; unique, effective structure—but all of these merits are aspects of filmmaking Anderson has proven himself to be good at again and again. I want to see him break the boundaries of his perfect world. I want to see him take risks beyond grasping at the low hanging fruit of irreverence (e.g. a tousled, revolutionary Timothée Chalamet in bed with Frances McDormand). I’m growing tired of being made to feel like I’m not quite smart enough to grasp the nuance of his witty intellectualism, and I’m beginning to suspect that there is less to pick up on than he suggests. To me, the film’s most compelling scenes were the brief moments when Anderson let his guard down and proceeded with tender simplicity in, for example, his representation of the passage of time in prison with two actors portraying younger and older versions of the same man standing side-by-side before a bathroom mirror; the younger man silently hands a glass to his older counterpart and departs the screen. I want to see more moments like this: applications of Anderson’s whimsical subversion of reality to ideas outside his thematic comfort zone. I want to see what he can produce without his signature layers of stylistic accoutrements. But I also wonder if The French Dispatch is a peek into the intricate dollhouse of Anderson’s cinematic capacity, wherein, without the perfection and symmetry, there’s really not much else there.

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