Before entering into the review, allow me to waylay you with a short parable. In 2014, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel debuted in US theaters and notched a record which still stands today: it achieved the highest per-theatre average in box office history, with $202,792 across each of four screens in LA and NYC. It went on to gross $170 million worldwide with $52 million in the US. In 2021, the theatrical market is starkly different. The explosion of streaming content has disrupted the limited-release market of yore. The French Dispatch is a tremendous film, comparable to the very best of Anderson’s filmography. It would be lucky to even cross $30 million worldwide. Is it worse? Not at all. However, in an age where every piece of content is required to have ‘worthy themes’ (whatever that means), I fear that a movie like The French Dispatch falls by the wayside. It is a movie that only exists as a celebration of cinema, not in a significant or showy manner like Spotlight or La La Land, but as a reminder of how joyful movies can be if we allow them to just exist as they are.
There is nothing to pry The French Dispatch open for. There are no hidden meanings or plot twists to debate over, or characters which blow up off the screen. It is nothing but the most sumptuous of feasts for the eyes and ears. Despite completely immersing you in Anderson’s world of fantasy, fortune, and spectacle, you are constantly aware that you are watching a film; and that effect wears off as soon as you walk out of the auditorium double-doors. However, for 103 minutes, you hope that the movie never ends. That is why The French Dispatch is a great film. It does not snake its way under your skin and linger in your consciousness for days afterwards, but for just under two hours, you are the willing participant in a grand experiment of magic and fiction.
Now, that’s enough from me about the thrills of cinema, lest I garner a reputation for pomposity. In truth, there is nothing elitist about this particular auteur. Bergman or Bresson, he is not. Anderson’s movies are always intended for everybody to enjoy. As mentioned earlier, they are not cerebral artistic pieces to pry apart. You just need to sit down, grab a snack and a drink, and enjoy yourself while the master works his craft. The French Dispatch is set up as a triptych of pieces written by journalists of the “French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun,” an iconic Parisian newspaper. The speed of exposition in the opening makes His Girl Friday seem like it was written by Béla Tarr, so quickly does the narration rap out the basic film premises. More time is given, though, to appreciate the name of the town that the assembled journalists call home: Ennui-sur-Blasé. It does not take much more of a second to appreciate the dry wit. What could be more ironic than an Anderson movie set in a town which roughly translates to Boredom-on-Apathy?
The contents of the movie are thankfully not so apathetic. At its heart, The French Dispatch is an ode to old-fashioned storytelling. The three stories that make up the trifecta are “The Concrete Masterpiece,” “Revisions to a Manifesto,” and “The Private Dining Room - of the Police Commissioner.” Each story has its own small army of movie stars lightly paying homage to the performers of the French New Wave, a glorious age of cinematic novelty where the very fabric of cinema was undergoing rapid evolution. The French Dispatch is not nearly so groundbreaking, but it certainly earns its creativity stripes.
The first story is written by flamboyant art aficionado J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, always an invaluable presence) and concerns an incarcerated psychopath who happens to be an artistic genius, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). His muse and part-time romantic partner (Leá Seydoux) just happens to be his prison guard, while an aggressive art dealer (Adrien Brody) sees value in his works and acquires rights to them. The story is fairly straightforward until the ending. As the dealer looks at the latest work by Rosenthaler, a piece which he and his uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler) have spent a fortune publicizing, he is seized by outrage. Even as we gaze at Rosenthaler’s latest work ourselves, we recognize why the moneyman is so furious, but also why he declares his absolute respect for its sheer artistic achievement. It probably equates to Anderson’s understanding of his own work. Never the predictable man, nor one to work within artistic restraints, he nevertheless directs his work as a reflection of his own soul. Anyone who properly watches his movies cannot deny his genius, frustrated though they may be by his auteur-like tendencies.
Not long after we say our farewells to the Parisian prison, we are pulled into the second story. It is a first hand-account of student riots led by the chess prodigy Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet in the better of his two performances releasing this month) and the contrarian Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a journalist who finds herself intimately involved in the situation. Oh, and Christoph Waltz cameos as...someone. It’s hard to tell exactly what his purpose is in the story, but Waltz is always a fine addition to any cast. Nevertheless, this is the weakest link in the anthology. The story feels undercooked at times, with the rapid narrative pace hurtling the audience towards its ending. McDormand’s witty journalist also feels like a step down from Swinton’s ludicrously watchable critic. However, the story holds true to the old screenwriting adage: “The last act makes the film.” The conclusion to this story is a wonderful sequence, as we transition from cartoonish black-and-white to a scene composed with astonishing depth. While watching it, I forgot even that Wes Anderson was the director - it may have well been Mendes or Iñárittu, shot by Deakins or Lubezki. Yeoman is a fine DP and has worked extremely well with Anderson, but this is one of his most finely-composed shots.
That brings us to the last and best story. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) is a food critic writing a piece about “a mode of cuisine known as police cooking,” which is exactly what it sounds like. In the process of his profile on the great police chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park), he becomes involved in a kidnapping plot involving a chauffeur (Edward Norton) kidnapping the son of the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric). The plot of this story is ludicrous even by Anderson’s standards. An abacus-wielding accountant (Willem Dafoe onscreen for literally 30 seconds, quite unforgivable), an old-fashioned talk-show host (Liev Schreiber - someone, get this man more roles), and a snappy showgirl (Saoirse Ronan, onscreen for literally 10 seconds, criminally short) are just a few of the characters that weave in and out of this story. An entire movie could probably have been made from this premise. It’s that good. The pace of the editing finally matches the frenetic beats of the story and pulsing score, with snap zooms and hand-drawn animation sequences galore. Like the last story, it also nails its ending, but even more smoothly. Bill Murray, spending most of the movie coasting by on easygoing charm as the no-nonsense editor of the newspaper, has two quietly moving scenes with Wright’s Wright (it’s confusing when the actor and character have the same last name, alright?).
“The Private Dining Room - of the Police Commissioner” has one additional feature to it that elevates it above its peers. That feature is the performance of Jeffrey Wright. From beginning to end, he makes the character his own. What is really tremendous of his acting ability is his ability to listen. He does not wait for the actor opposite him to finish saying his lines, but he listens to the character opposite him to gauge when and how to respond. The way he responds to a question from the talk-show host, the way he speaks to the chef during a private moment, the way he looking at someone who does something so simple as offer him a chance - he makes each moment stand out and truly stands out among the rest of the cast. The point must be addressed that most performers in this movie aren’t really acting. Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand (among many others) are all fine actors, but their characters do not feel embodied by living humans so much as perfect machines. It is Wright and, to a lesser extent, Chalamet and Park, who truly make themselves memorable. They are not processing lines; they act and speak like actual people. Not coincidentally, they are all first-time Anderson cast members. Wes Anderson always feels like the biggest draw to a Wes Anderson movie, but any film should be a compromise between script, director, and performer. Hiring the best actors and actresses in the world does not mean a thing if they are not allowed to act.
All in all, The French Dispatch is certainly a gorgeously-rendered film if nothing else. There are likely not many better ways to spend 103 minutes. Anderson is a cinematic auteur who has earned the right to rest on his plaudits, but the fact he can still find such depth and complexity in today’s society is truly what sets him out from the pack. The great Andrei Tarkovsky once commented that the world is far too complex for any film to contain questions and answers to all of its mysteries. The best a director can do is to pick a single thing to focus on and hone in on that. Wes Anderson agrees...until he doesn’t. He can show you an entire world, shallow as a puddle, with characters as three-dimensional as a line; yet he finds a single point at which the earth opens itself up a hair deeper and you realize that you have only been looking through the wrong lens, for nothing about life is routine. When I watch an Anderson movie, I imagine he is suggesting something akin to this: “I can’t show you the world in one movie. An entire lifetime isn’t enough to understand the world. 10 lifetimes still aren’t enough. But what I can do is show you that even if you feel you live most of your life engaged in endless tedium and the world around you has lost its element of magic, you’ll still have a few scattered moments where you can see something deeper, and you can be satisfied in knowing that there is something more out there. I can show you that these moments exist. There is still something remarkable about life.” What more can a film do?
Score: ★★★★ / ★★★★★