I’m finishing my London Film Festival coverage with a film that everyone can finally see this very weekend, which is really exciting news. It’s fun seeing films early and feeling special, but films this great deserved to be shared and The French Dispatch is one such great film. As everything about its aesthetic should tell you, The French Dispatch is the newest film from Wes Anderson, the beloved mind behind Fantastic Mr Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, among other wonderful and charming films. His newest outing is an anthology tale, consisting of tales from the final edition of The French Dispatch, a France-based journal that is part of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.
We’re gifted with three tales, although there’s five or six parts if you really want to be picky about it. There’s an introduction to the city in which The French Dispatch is based (deliciously called Ennui-sur-Blasé), a city which has slowly found itself gentrified and liberated from its grimy history. The three stories find plenty of grime to roll in though. First is the story of an incarcerated painter, whose work inspires a fellow inmate. Second is the tale of student protests and the romantic connections that spring up in the heat of revolution. Finally, we find the tale of a chef who aids the police chief he works for in searching for a missing child. All of these tales, themselves presented in the wider fabric of the film, are told by their (fictional) authors, though for Anderson fans this shouldn’t feel unfamiliar. Similar to how the core of The Grand Budapest Hotel was hidden under a few layers of matryoshka dolls. French Dispatch is a series of dolls, with a handful of layers each. Though it sometimes means you may struggle to fully invest in more than a few characters, it creates what I can only describe as a picnic feel. You get to sample a whole host of different ideas from Anderson, all interesting in their own ways, and all of course beautifully presented.
It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.
Being an anthology, there’s a lot of actors needed to bring the stories to life and holy hell, what a cast. It says a lot about how stacked your cast list is when actors like Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz and Edward Norton don’t even get main billing (find them and many others hidden in that little list near the bottom of the poster). This all means I’m going to have to do that thing I do quite a lot and say that all the cast are brilliant. You know that they’re brilliant though, so many of these actors are ones you already love from other films and they’re great here too. I’d struggle to say that many are giving career best performances, but that’s far more an indication of their quality of roles than their weakness here. It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.
But I should spotlight a few of them, and spotlight I will. Going loosely in order of appearance, my first fave is Tilda Swinton. I adore Swinton in everything she does and she’s a brilliant comedic presence when given Anderson’s dialogue. Here, as the journalist J. K. L. Berensen, she gets to exercise her best comedic muscles, by putting on a silly accent and acting pompous. It’s not ground breaking, but seeing her on screen again always made me smile. I also really enjoy Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student activist who is amusingly pretentious. He captures all the over-arrogance of young people involved in politics, playing a straight man to a silly world. I hope it encourages him to do more comedies, he works well in these worlds. Finally, I’m also a big fan of Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, the author of the third story. There’s a way that he manners his voice, which navigates between the deadpan and the comic, and which I remain totally entranced by. The way he speaks has been one of the things that has most stuck with me after viewing the film and I can’t explain why it works, only that it very much does.
Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson though, there’s a style that you’re here to watch and once again, it seems the man has bested himself. Any one single frame would let you know immediately who the man is steering this ship and likewise, any one of those frames would warrant hanging on a wall. His stunningly symmetrical shots are back, so is the twee score courtesy of returning collaborator Alexandre Desplat and many of your other favourite trademarks. But there’s also a sense of exploration. By now, even those of us who didn’t spend four years studying film know what a Wes Anderson film looks like, so it’s time to play with the formula a bit. We’ve got shots that move or spin in new ways, random animated sequences and some really stunning freeze frames that I fell in love with the first second they showed up and continued to love as they reoccurred. It is, quite simply, another Wes Anderson film. If you’re already on board with his aesthetic and acoustic tastes, you’re going to be very happy indeed.
These are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something.
When we discuss Wes Anderson though, it often comes down to these discussions of his style to such an extent that a lot of reviewers (and I’ve been guilty of this too) forget to talk about the emotional response. Anderson’s films connect and are beloved because we fall in love with their characters, be it M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel or our titular fox and his family in Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s probably this area though where The French Dispatch is at its weakest. As I said earlier, the anthology nature of the film means we don’t spend much time with any character, and therefore can only ever make minimal connections with them. Fortunately, it’s not a totally cold film, as you end up (and bear with me on this) feeling this melancholy love for the French Dispatch itself. It’s a magazine that is ending, and a type of magazine that hasn’t much time left in our world. Inherently then, these are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something. Again, it’s very hard to put into words, because it just works. That lingering emotional impact allows itself to be tainted with hope (with the final line being “what next?”) but it’s melancholy nonetheless. A damn fine melancholy it is though that Anderson has crafted.
Like I said then, it’s another Wes Anderson film. If you like his other stuff, it would be very strange if you didn’t like this. It’s beautiful, it’s held up by a cast all giving 100% and its emotional aftertaste has lingered on me like a cigarette kiss. I thought it was wonderful and on Friday, it’s yours to enjoy too. Treasure it and all its whimsy. (But probably also go see Dune, which I haven’t seen yet but will also presumably highly recommend.)