The French Dispatch (2021)
As I stumbled out of the cinema, blinking and trailing popcorn kernels in my wake, I already knew that writing this review would not be easy. So I waited. I rewatched one of Wes Anderson's recent films. I saw another great director go beyond the height of his powers. I returned to the cinema and without the distraction of popcorn or crinkly cellophane watched Anderson's vaguely Francophilic excursion again.
The French Dispatch is a strong production and a decent film. Hell, cinema might even need a brash celebration of what we Anglophones call "foreign cinema" from the New Wave to the circus of Tati.
It is also Wes Anderson's worst film to date. The dykes have burst and the flood of whimsy and carefully curated, and forgive me for even uttering the "word," Andersonia, has swept over the film, washing away every sincere emotion, every pillar of restraint, every charming little cul-de-sac of resigned melancholy that makes Wes Anderson more than a glorified set decorator. This film, for all its bursting love for cinema, is hollow at its core. Snatches of genuine emotion can be found at its outskirts, but the end result is a tottering tower of irony that, like a shy exhibitionist, shows much but says very little. Much has been made of the cast Anderson has managed to gather for this picture. Much ado about nothing, as most of the famous faces appear only to gather their applause before striding off stage to collect their checks. There are a few glaring exceptions, a fierce Benicio del Toro, the icy Léa Seydoux and a smooth Jeffrey Wright, each delivering strong performances that effectively bookend the picture. And of course the cinematography, absolutely dripping with inspiration and more importantly, masterfully lit when filming in black and white. For all the faults of the film the camerawork is never less than stellar and it is a pleasure to see the film leap from stark contrast of the 60s to the muted colour of the 70s.
Effectively an anthology picture, The French Dispatch follows a commonly noted pattern of decline and fall. The introduction is a rather dull affair, helped in no part by Bill Murray and some particularly grating Wes Andersonisms that were overdone by the time Grand Budapest rolled around. Owen Wilson fails to wow with a quick segment right out of a fourteen year old's moodboard. The first true segment of the film, The Concrete Masterpiece, is its undisputed height, passionate, darkly funny, shockingly well-designed. Even the egregious use of VFXs does little to detract here, though it does reflect another worrisome trend in Anderson's filmography that seems to have gotten worse before it has any chance of getting better. Of course Wes is no stranger to CGI, and he's seem them employed to incredible effect not only in his animated features but in some of his best film. Here however there is none of the charm of Fantastic Mr Fox or The Life Aquatic.
The second segment is about a book is neither little nor red, but written by one Timothée Chalamet. It's altogether too cute, both as an echo of May 68 and for this reviewer's stomach.
The film concludes, with the exception of an exceptionally dry epilogue, with a quick vignette headed by Jeffrey Wright. Another worthy performance, but the attempt at melancholia falls half-hearty to the sidewalk. Besides that it contains a decent action scene, something Anderson proved himself adept with in Bottle Rocket. Again it is the colours that dominate here, and despite everything crashing down around the camera an abiding love of cinema shines through. When Anderson attempts to recreate a smoky TV studio then by Jove he does it and he does it well. The animated sequence in particular falls flat, being neither theatrically or technically impressive.
Wes Anderson's worse still stands above most's best. And there's still much to admire here, though reading about Wes Anderson' sets and colour palettes takes on the quality of Mad Libs after a half-dozen films. Despite the hollowness of the film there's still an enjoyable and often hilarious 107 minutes to be found here. But I expect long-time fans of Anderson will be just a bit disappointed at how easily the gilt rubs off that artfully constructed sensibility this time around.