The French Dispatch (2021)

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

When it comes to the written word, there are few things greater than literary journalism. It’s a strange art of writing where the factual is heightened through prose and something both powerful and transformative is created, a story that expands and deepens both worldview and the soul needed to interpret it. Some of the facts may stick, but most importantly, the story is keenly felt. 

Like so: they won’t pepper you with facts and numbers on how many square kilometres of jungle that have been felled in the Amazon, because what’s a blunt number against the description of how quiet a once-vibrant stretch of land gets when the birds and animals that lived there are now gone forever?

It seemed there was a golden age for this kind of thing, where magazines and journals had money to fund writers, actual honest-to-god writers, who were given both the time and resources to do some actual reporting and give less of a shit about filling in the journalistic ad-libs of the five W’s. The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest, is a love letter of sorts to those writers and the world they moved in. One not quite fantastical, yet not quite real either. 

It’s also an elegy, we quickly learn, as the founder and editor-in-chief of “The French Dispatch”, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Anderson fixture Bill Murray), has left this world, decreeing the magazine’s death alongside him. As such, the film is as much an homage to his memory as it is to the kind of place he built and his magazine gave life to: quirky slice-of-life reporting, and chronicles of the winds of change. In this case, a series of shorts, taking us into the respective writer’s vision of what transpired: a bike-along through a quaint French town that’s home to the magazine, the story of an imprisoned artist’s rise to fame, a student revolt, and a food review that turns into a kidnapping thriller.

They are, as anyone who even has an inkling about Wes Anderson and his films would assume, ornate little pieces with even smaller details inside of them, all fun, precious, whimsical and humorous. Everything, from styles of dress and accessories, to architecture, the very way the film is shot, as Anderson plays with ratios and framing to a much larger degree than previous, is meticulous and in its right place. 

Much has been made about Anderson’s post-2010 films being too stylized for his own good, to the point of being gimmicky and enslaved to his penchant for visual symmetry, but The French Dispatch sees a deepening. Literally, actually, as he plays more with deep focus in his compositions and arranges several layers of action without it becoming a disorganized mess. A bit of razzledazzle for those who dig that sort of thing. 

While the stories may be short, they’re not modest, and Anderson’s not short on bodies to fill them, because he’s brought along his ever-growing troupe of thespians and cameo collective, a group of actors so large now that they at this point would be a powerhouse union in Tinsel Town. It’s almost embarrassing to witness this Marvel-esque bevvy of actors who have to share the screen, because who’s served here by Elisabeth Moss or Wes-veteran Bob Balaban saying two lines, and only really coming on-screen so that we can say, “Oh, she’s in it too?” and “Ah, there he is!”?

It feels odd to linger on how this creates micro-tears in the illusion, and exposes the artifice of Anderson’s films, because they’re predominantly known for style often overshadowing substance, but I do believe it’s a double-edged sword. His films are fantastical and out of this world, and it’s a shame when that illusion has holes poked in it by what feels like gratuitous cameo appearances that only serve to remind you of the real-life famous person’s existence. It proves, perhaps, that our society’s crack addict-like dependency on celebrity culture runs deeper than ever. 

It perhaps also doesn’t help that all three stories fail to get at an inner life of the main characters, who by design are meant to be observers in their stories, mere vessels for the retelling. You don’t have a teen romance to fawn over like in Moonlight Kingdom, or a memorable personality like Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel to remember. Only Benicio Del Toro, a newcomer to the Anderson menagerie of actors, stands out as Moses Rosenthaler, a painter convicted of insanity and murder. Well met, Benny!

The film itself is delightful, of course, as they always tend to be, full of affection, care and appreciation for the elements in it. Anderson still has singular style and vision, and how he curates and highlights in even the small details makes you want the same for him and for his work to be preserved for prosperity, because of the distinct texture he’s brought to American cinema for more than twenty years. If 2021 is remembered more as the year we got another Wes Anderson film than another year spattered with Marvel sequels, non-originals, spin-offs and “content synergies”, I’d take it, even if it’s not a landmark work of his. 

Lingering on why it might be easier to dismiss Anderson than someone like Ingmar Bergman, whose laser-focus on matters of the soul meant his films shaped up almost the same, the contrast might be in emotional impact. With dour proclamations, subdued despair and carefully framed close-ups, Bergman’s visual vocabulary was for a long time so immediately identifiable that it lent itself easily to caricature, even for a mainstream audience. The reason that was fine, and no one considers Bergman a one-trick pony that was eating his own tail, was because emotionally, his films still hit like a ton of bricks. Who cares if you feel like you’ve seen something before, when you leave the darkness having just witnessed a man question God, life, purpose and himself? The French Dispatch, and Anderson’s other works, can’t quite claim that. 

Still, a new Wes Anderson is appointment viewing for anyone who is even ambivalent about his films and to deny his impact is to lie. Enjoy him while you can, folks, because he’ll go out of print one day. 

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