“Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
Whenever I leave having seen a new Wes Anderson film, I never fail to come away with the same reaction. I am convinced that whatever film the audience and myself have just seen is his masterpiece. Whether it be the tale of a boy running away from his scout troop, or a tale of three brothers traveling to India, I always feel that every film the man makes is nothing short of his finest. I didn’t have that same reaction to The French Dispatch even though I enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, I found it to be an invigorating and enlivening piece of cinema. The difference here is when before I was constantly blown away by Anderson, this time I simply basked in seeing a filmmaker feel both comfortably settled and energetically alive.
Set in the quiet village of Ennui-sur-Blasé, The French Dispatch details the production of an international newsletter which chronicles the goings on in France during the 1960s. Run by American editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the publication’s staff of contributors includes an art critic (Tilda Swinton), a travel writer (Owen Wilson) a political news correspondent (Frances McDormand) and a food columnist (Jeffrey Wright). As Arthur struggles to find ways to cut corners before the latest edition goes to press, his writers take turns recounting their latest expeditions and how they found themselves changed by them.
As one would expect, The French Dispatch checks all of the traditional Wes Anderson boxes. It’s rich in color, quirky characters, moments of pensive silence and the kind of social comedy that sneaks up on both the people on the screen and the ones in the real world watching them. But there’s definitely a more experimental side to Anderson here, signified by the style of storytelling he’s opted for this time around. Each vignette is instigated by Arthur visiting all of his writers who launch into their respective story which usually include a flashback or two within it and are illustrated in various styles, including black & white and animation. While this gives the The French Dispatch an epistolary feel of sorts, it also proves catnip for the Wes Anderson lover who will surely delight at the unveiling of yet another odd and endearing tale to devour. It’s the kind of storytelling needed to bring this world that no longer exists to life. Each piece takes place in a bygone France that’s free from the romanticized Paris, but is rich in culture, tradition and deadpan. Sure, the director has made this kind of world before. Yet, never with the kind of wonder and panache that makes both a prison riot and a revolutionary uprising seem like graceful works of art.
Ultimately it’s the characters themselves who give The French Dispatch its essence. After seemingly endless months where despondency and aimlessness reached many of us, it’s refreshing to see a film where virtually every character, no matter how prominent, possesses such purpose. Each character is seen to have the most unwavering commitment, dedication and belief with regards to their craft, mission and overall existence. The passion seen in the men and women of The French Dispatch manifests itself in different ways. Yet it so clearly and lovingly flows within each character Anderson has created, be they an artist or an activist. At the heart of it is an underlying tribute to writers. The director has spoken about the various real-life figures who helped inspire some of the film’s characters, but there’s a general overall affection here for the person who has dedicated themselves to commenting on the state of life around them in one form or another and sending their thoughts out into the world. This of course extends to an appreciation for the written word itself and the other power it contains. While today’s form of writing has been both attacked and weaponized to a certain extent, Anderson has shown us the artform’s other power; specifically the sheer beauty and value of observation and experience.
I’m convinced it’s impossible for anyone to give a bad performance in a Wes Anderson film and this cast reinforces that notion. Returning players such as Murray, McDormand, Swinton and Adrien Brody are so in sync with the director and their characters to the point where you know so much about them before they open their mouths. Meanwhile, new faces such as Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux and Benicio Del Toro all fit right in thanks to the brilliance of the script, the intricacies of their characters and the artistic room Anderson so lovingly gives them. From Saoirse Ronan’s brief appearance as a gangster’s moll, to the great Lois Smith’s turn as a renowned art dealer, the eclectic group of actors all contribute to the pleasures of The French Dispatch.
While still in high school, I once attended a lecture conducted by an author whose name I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember. At a certain point the author commented that people, for the most part, always love being read to. If someone’s parents read to them as children, chances are they still feel a sense of being comforted and captivated by being read to even well into adulthood. The author didn’t give a reason for this, at least not one I’m able to remember. But it’s a fact that manages to creep back into my memory from time to time. Maybe it’s why The French Dispatch worked so well as a film for me. It captivates its audiences with a series of fables and tall tales all brought to life by the talented set of actors reading aloud to those in the darkened theater. In a very real sense, it’s the kind of escapism we long for; the kind filled with moments of sheer beauty, madcap silliness and endings that take us by surprise. It’s a breed of escapism which is always needed, regardless of what’s going on in the world.