Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Wes Anderson is the household auteur. Alongside Tarantino and Christopher Nolan he is perhaps one of the most recognizable names in contemporary cinema. The French Dispatch, his latest, is a collection of interconnected short stories woven together by the fictional French magazine from which the film derives its name. While there is no shortage of the properties that have endured Wes Anderson as a beloved figure in the world of film: the cinematography is consistently gorgeous, the narrative strokes are whimsical and dazzling, often poignant, however, the film proves at once mechanical and clumsy. At best it evokes other Wes Anderson films and at worst the emotional heft feels like a byproduct of putting enough recognizable actors within well composed frames and feeding them sentimental and witty quips as if to imply that this frivolous story was actually intending to provide us with genuine insight all along. While not an awful film, this continues Anderson’s creative plateauing, here we find a filmmaker unable to push themselves beyond their own stubborn vision and unwilling to provide the audience with new magic instead pulling from reserves that continue to grow more scarce with each release.
Having viewed this film at the Austin Film Festival, let me start by saying this is easily the tightest film I saw all festival from a stylistic perspective. Anderson is a master of control within his compositions and his color schemes. Narratively this quality translates into drawn out exposition that forces the viewer to sit through someone rambling about what we are directly seeing on screen. Many will argue this has to do with the literary nature of this film being about a magazine, however, Anderson has always done this throughout his career, whether it was heists in Fantastic Mr. Fox or describing the various clubs of Rushmore or the society of keys in The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is one of his trademarks. The sheer overwhelming amount of exposition here though not only comes across as lazy, it’s exhausting, especially when all of the characters more or less speak in the same hyper-articulate emotional dialect that Anderson has spent a career fashioning, few characters in the film feel distinct enough or different from any creations he has crafted in his past to truly reach the memorable heights of an M. Gustave or a Steve Zissou.
Retreading the same ground is not the only aspect Anderson struggles with here, he also has not been this unfocused or meandering since his debut. This film is unhurried and unconcerned with moving the narrative forward or really providing any meaningful connections thematically or narratively between the stories. And the setup is quite brilliant. As far as a pitch goes, the plot is a great one. The head of a news outlet dies (Orson Welles, anyone?) and his employees attempt to stitch together the final issue of the magazine that will be the last by the decree of the now deceased business owner who is about as thinly sketched a character as they come. Anderson presumes that by providing us with the repeated adage that this character invokes (“No crying”) we are supposed to revel in some grandiose takeaway about the nature of his personhood. This is where the aimless nature hurts the otherwise simmering potential of this film, there are aspects that should work, and even threaten to at times but by the time the conclusion is reached Anderson has presumed so much about the emotional climax of that penultimate scene that he does absolutely no heavy lifting and goes for understatement, which should be refreshing but instead it comes across as unfinished and undeserved for how many assumptions the writers have made about our investment in these characters who we often interact with only briefly.
Not everything is sloppy in this film though, each of the three major vignettes all begin and end in a compelling manner, often with an expository monologue at the beginning and a beautiful monologue at the end to wrap up the themes, you just often have to endure the self-indulgent and pretentious middle sections where the actors move and speak as if they are parodying Anderson’s past work. Sometimes this can happen with iteration, the more you stick to a similar approach, the closer you become to mimicking yourself, which comes across here as almost mocking, like we are watching a high school film class recreate Wes Anderson’s movies for a class project with all the haphazard and amateurish results therein. Though there are two standout performances in the film in the form of Lea Seydoux who plays a prison guard who serves as the muse of a tortured artist only to be provided with explicit context and depth in the final moments of her vignette that she had been implying all along with her acting. The other stunning performance is provided by Jeffery Wright who makes the most of his character being displayed across two separate periods in his life. These two newcomers to Anderson’s world are welcome in the future, they seem to understand his work in a very intimate way whereas all the veterans he pulls for this are lazy and sleepwalking through almost every scene.
So not to say The French Dispatch is a bad film, but it ranks among the worst movies Wes Anderson has made, aside Isle of Dogs and Bottle Rocket. Not that any of these are necessarily bad movies, just that they are more often that not rambling but never exciting, like the most boring guy at the bar who believes his stories will move and shatter those around him but who instead just ends up with no one sitting next to him except the bartender, his captive audience, nodding politely and counting down the minutes until the shift ends. Unlike Isle of Dogs and Bottle Rocket, there is a better movie in here somewhere. Whereas those films were simply messy, The French Dispatch is a bit more inscrutable and difficult to define in what makes it not work. When you make films that are so undeniably similar, this can happen, your audience says to themselves “well I liked this in the past, so what has changed about me for not liking this now”. It’s safe to say, we are not at fault. We all keep growing up and Anderson seems to remain the same.
P.S. There is a very cheeky visual reference to Mon Oncle that I liked a lot! Would love to see Anderson tackle a Tati-esque film with minimal dialogue and physical humor.