Our film editor David Mouriquand butts heads with guest reviewer Mark Esper on whether Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, is a quirky delight or a tiresome yarn exclusively tailored to the director’s fanbase.
C’EST TIP TOP! ⋆⋆⋆⋆
By David Mouriquand
In his beautifully crafted valentine to old-school journalism, set in the brilliantly-named fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, we meet the American expat employees of the titular supplement, a The New Yorker stand-in dedicated to politics, art and human-interest stories.
The French Dispatch sees Anderson mirror form and style by utilising a magazine construction for his story. He orchestrates a freewheeling-by-design anthology consisting of three stories: Tilda Swinton dons a Thatcher perm to narrate the art pages, recounting the story of an imprisoned abstract artist (Benicio del Toro); Frances McDormand takes over in the second half’s political section to chronicle student protests led by Timothée Chalamet’s activist who’s “shy about (his) new muscles”; Jeffrey Wright channels James Baldwin to eruditely guide us through a third story of cuisine and kidnap.
I’m not one to shy away from my bias: I’m a card-carrying Anderson fan, and any film that merges journalism, a Gallic setting and a 4:3 presentation has my vote. The French Dispatch feels tailor-made for my sensibilities, but it won’t win the quirk-happy filmmaker any new fans: the anthology format does allow for narrative reinvention, but some may struggle with the impressionistic feel, will find the star-studded acting roster too dizzyingly dense for satisfaction, and single out the student protest second act as a disappointing lull. This last niggle stands. For the rest, however, there’s simply no denying that every exquisite frame within these self-contained shorts is richly composed with immaculate detail, the visuals once again reflecting the script’s delightful verbosity. It all gently comes together to form an eccentric and vibrant treat, with the final segment standing out as a tall tale that’ll gently pull at your heartstrings in the most beautiful way possible.
Vive le journalisme, et vive The French Dispatch!
C’EST PAS TOP! ⋆⋆
By Mark Esper
Once again, as with 2004’s The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray is central to the plot of Wes Anderson’s latest comic opera. As the editor of The French Dispatch, his presence bookends the film’s inventive storyline of editorials and features. However, if you were expecting a return to the triumphant folie of The Grand Budapest Hotel, or for Murray to step into the surprisingly deft shoes of Ralph Fiennes, then you’ll discover that both are overly self-occupied.
Whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel cartwheeled joyously from one scene to another, The French Dispatch quickly mires itself in self-harm – and the reason for that is comic. By deliberately trying to stick to a meter that is so rhythmic to the scenery, the film’s humour never relaxes long enough to invite you in – and the wound is a fatal one. Like a private joke strung out for 103 minutes, it’s far more likely that you’ll be squirming in your seat after the first minute than the fiftieth. Linger any longer than that and you’ll be relegated to an evening of spot-the-celeb-thespian. And whilst there are plenty of worthy candidates, Tilda Swinton smites all before her. At the back end of ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, which is by far the best segment of the movie, Tilda delivers a lecture that immediately marks her out. Through dint of accent, deportment and delivery, it’s another quintessential disappearing act that will leave you wondering just how she did it.
Yet, in the end, for all the beautifully made film that it is, The French Dispatch just wants to be loved on its own terms. Caught between the pages of its best intentions, Anderson’s stories become a suffocating slog, whereas a real-life editor would have dropped several to save the issue.
The French Dispatch / D: Wes Anderson (US, 2021), with Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright. Starts October 21.