“French Dispatch” Is a Curious Experiment for Anderson, But a Messy One
Wes Anderson’s latest takes the form of an anthology this time around. The French Dispatch begins with the sudden death of the founder and editor of the titular magazine, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (played by Bill Murray). The outlet has its offices located in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, and is also where the entire writing staff gather to say their goodbyes.
The anthology’s model is as unique as the style Anderson has created for himself, and works quite well as an homage to one of his favorite publications, The New Yorker. Each segment plays like a reading of a featured article, while the wraparound focuses on the events of the present following Arthur’s death. The staff celebrate his career by reflecting on his relationship with each and every one of them, as shown in asides between each segment. With Anderson’s penchant for quirkiness, tongue-in-cheek doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s just unfortunate that it feels disheveled, especially when the film is split between its clear love letters to classic French cinema and the aristocratic aesthetic of The New Yorker.
The film warns its audience that what they’re about to see is essentially broken up into five main parts: an obituary of its editor-in-chief, a short travelogue on the less-than-savory nooks and crannies of Ennui-sur-Blasé as well as its history, three main articles that occupy the majority of the rest of the runtime, and finally an afterword that bring us back to the offices of the publication. French Dispatch moves quick across its details it prides itself so much in establishing however they happen so quick, blink and you’ll miss it. The details end up not mattering so much in following the film’s main threads than Anderson’s other features. Despite how they end up enriching so many of his past features, giving his characters compelling and sometimes damning qualities, the ones employed in Dispatch come off as mostly surface-level.
Anderson’s works have been more focused on the careful balance of the symmetry of his visuals with consideration to the intricate details of character that intersect cleverly, but still carry an impact of drama which convey a certain weightlessness to the experience. The visuals in French Dispatch are at their richest during the opening, when the audience first sets eyes on the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. But when the film starts proper and the articles kick in as a surrogate focus of aesthetic, his visual knack seems not to know what to do with itself. It plays with aspect ratio and color timing changes but it begins to lose rhyme or reason for why certain specific things change so frequently.
Dispatch is considerably more wordy for Anderson, which fits his aim in telling stories from the lens of writers who love to toy with linguistics. The performances he gets from his cast are always captivating but with this venture the considerable volume of dialogue feels like an uphill effort for most of the cast, save for the excellent Jeffrey Wright, whose segment “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is easily the favorite of this reviewer. However there is something vaguely uncomfortable about the treatment of the segment’s Asian characters as Wright’s article paints the chef Nescaffier, who is by association the subject of his writing (and it being a culinary article), as a master craftsman with an enigmatic exoticism attached to him. But it eventually pulls away from this as the article spins off into the wild and unexpected which is one big reason why it stands out so well against the rest. Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck Wright has a command stronger than anyone else in the film, and his dialogue while considerably more chewy than anyone else’s in the whole production comes across effortless in his character’s voice, recited on the spot thanks to his typographic memory. It’s a delightful bright spot in an experiment of Anderson’s that has no qualms with trial and error.
The French Dispatch is available in theaters nationwide in the US October 22, 2021.