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In the 25 years since his debut feature film, “Bottle Rocket” (1996), Wes Anderson’s intricately curated style has cemented his reputation as an auteur like no other. Uniquely characterized by an intoxicating focus on symmetry, color, and elegance, this style is ubiquitous, even inspiring countless off-shoots from fans looking to channel his aesthetic.
His tenth film, "The French Dispatch," is the highest exaggeration of his filmmaking style to date: Anderson's latest leans into the picturesque mid-century Europe visuals of the eponymous "Grand Budapest Hotel" and amplifies it ten-fold. And, as one might expect from Anderson, his much-anticipated film (which premiered in-competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival), is a hilarious, endearing, and absolutely breathtaking work of art.
"The French Dispatch" follows the creation of the last issue of a New Yorker-inspired magazine in the aptly named town of Ennui-sur-blasé, and much like the titular fictional magazine, it's told in several vignettes — “an obituary, a brief travel guide and three feature articles.” Anderson centers on four American journalists in France and their fearless, if naïve, editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), who allows his writers to pursue whatever topics and expenses they please so long as they “try to make it sound like [they] wrote it that way on purpose.”
Each section of the film contains a whole slew of Andersoniasms to unpack. (A single viewing of the film hardly seems like enough to grasp all that the director is trying to do)
As with all of Anderson's films, the performances are exactly how he styles them: deadpan and subtle. But that also means the star-studded cast often blend together into a single Andersonian mold. Notable exceptions are journalist Lucinda Krementz (Francis McDormand) and student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), whose relationship as journalist-subject slash-lover teeters so close to ridiculousness that it actually gives the actors room to breathe and add color to their characters. The result is magnetic. Still, most of the characters fall so skillfully in line with Anderson’s vision that it almost becomes more performance art than performance.
That much can also be said of the rest of the film, too. So boldly does Anderson dive into his aesthetic (just as we expect him to) that “The French Dispatch” at times feels more like an art piece to prove Anderson’s mastery of the craft than a story concerned with moving its audience. For example, the film shifts from black-and-white to color, almost on a whim. And though both color schemes are undoubtedly gorgeous, the changes can feel confusing and haphazard. Similarly, the plot unfolds so rapidly — each scene so filled to the brim with action, imagery, and metaphors — that Anderson risks leaving his audience in the dust.
Still, it would be wrong to blame Anderson for leaning so heavily into his iconic style, just as it would be wrong to say that this deep dive into Andersoniasms is what differentiates “The French Dispatch” from his other films. Where “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom” invited viewers into the various idiosyncrasies of unknown places and relationships, “The French Dispatch” rushes its audience through them like a whirlwind — not unlike Herbsaint Sazerac’s (Owen Wilson) “quick travel guide” of Ennui-sur-Blasé that opens the film. Indeed, that quick pace in transporting viewers to a new place or event can make the film, itself, feel like a magazine, which is a large reason why the film succeeds as a tribute to journalism and journalists.
It's in this reflection of journalism that “The French Dispatch” — and Anderson's genius — truly shines. While the film pays tribute to its subjects (writers of magazines like The New Yorker) it doesn't put them on a pedestal. Far from it: The French Dispatch’s zany journalists are riffed on endlessly. Gags about journalistic objectivity and the inability for the writers to follow a clear storyline abound and add color to the ragtag editorial team.
For fans of Anderson, this film provides a fun, fast-paced, and unforgiving view into the world of the auteur. The fact that it may not be the director’s best work does not mean it isn’t still worth a watch. Quite the opposite. It does everything fans expect from Anderson, and ratchets those elements up to the extreme. In short, it has all the markings of a typical Anderson classic — elegance, eccentricity, undeniable wit and irrefutable charm.
It’s Wes Anderson’s world, and “The French Dispatch” makes a masterful case for living in it.
—Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bySofiaAndrade.
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