Wes Anderson is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers alive today. However, his films seem to split people into two groups, those who love them or hate them. I happen to be in the former category. Anderson’s films have been a big part of my life ever since I saw “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in theaters when I was 10 years old. He has made four films since that one, with 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” being his most acclaimed as well as his most recent live-action film until now. “The French Dispatch” closes a three year gap between films and a seven year gap since Anderson has directed a live-action film. In fact, this is a longer wait than anticipated, as the film was slated to be released in July of 2020.
So was the wait worth it? Of course it was! Anderson has an almost perfect track record at this point, so fans of his will of course love this film. His idiosyncratic style of filmmaking is at its peak here. You may even say it is “Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson-y.” The sets drip with his iconic symmetry. The carefully framed shots are unmistakably his own. His usual cast members all appear throughout the film. To some, this makes “The French Dispatch” feel like it is Anderson on auto-pilot. However, there is so much more that he does with this film that separates it from his other work.
To start, the story is structured much differently from his other films. Rather than follow a strict narrative, the film tells five different stories, with three of them constructing the centerpiece of the film. The first section and epilogue take place in the offices of The French Dispatch and see the staff of the The French Dispatch assembling the final edition of their paper. The editor, played by Bill Murray, does not want to cut any of the stories that are up for print that week. From there, we are thrust into each story with a visual retelling. For a director so synonymous with wonderful color choice, the majority of the film takes place in black and white. These sections make up the moments that are “in-print,” only switching to color for things that are either in the present or “off the books.” As usual with Anderson’s films, narration and internal monologues from the characters and outside parties help drive the story at certain points. This helps to create a wonderful atmosphere that makes the audience aware that what they are watching is not only the thoughts of a writer, but also the actions of a character on screen. It is truly a spellbinding technique that he has never done better until now.
The cast list includes many of the usual suspects in a Wes Anderson film. Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and many more return. However, many of these actors take a backseat to new additions to the lineup. The first major story, titled “The Concrete Masterpiece,” follows Benicio del Toro as a convicted murderer turned modern artist who paints his muse, a prison guard played by Léa Seydoux. Much of this film’s “R rating” comes from this section due to the nude painting scenes as well as Adrien Brody dropping many foul words to rather humorous results. The second story, titled “Revisions To A Manifesto” sees the second lead role from Timothée Chalamet this year as well as a whole swath of younger actors who do an incredible job at fitting effortlessly into Anderson’s storybook style of acting. Chalamet he does a great job of disappearing into his character, chasing away any thoughts one might have that he was just cast as name recognition. He is also a surprisingly good comedic actor. “The Private Dining Room Of The Police Commissioner” closes out the main stories with a magnetizing tale about kidnapping and food, led by Jeffrey Wright as one of the best characters to ever grace Anderson’s films. Every second he is speaking is enchanting. This section also includes Willem Dafoe in one of the best bit parts in recent memories.
Another major deviation from his past work is the use of other formats. While he has two stop motion films under his belt, Anderson can add full on animation to his repertoire. The section near the end in which the characters morph into comic strip caricatures of themselves for a cartoonish car chase is one of Anderson’s funniest moments. There are several sections during the second story in which other unique filmmaking decisions happen, such as the moment where a character’s backstory is conveyed by a stage dramatization. The first story is presented in part as a slideshow, with many of them consisting of people physically standing still in a room. It is an absolute delight to see how all of these different ideas come together to make an absolutely cohesive film. Anderson also gets credit for crafting up three enticing stories that all could’ve filled out their own feature length films. However, he manages to compact these tales into just the right length to keep everything interesting and engaging. This is also interesting as there is little semblance of a moral or overarching plot throughout these stories. They are simply biographies, anecdotes, memoirs and articles about the lives of fictional people. The film does also lack the emotional gut punch of films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Moonrise Kingdom,” but it makes up for it in technique. Due to this, this is likely Anderson’s least rewatchable film, but that does not make it his least enjoyable.
The anthology structure of the film might make “The French Dispatch” feel lightweight and the intense overstylization may seem like retreads of his past work, but Wes Anderson has done it again. This film is a wonderful time that will surely delight even the most casual fan of his. To those who have a much deeper connection, this is undoubtedly the film of the year.