Filmmaker Wes Anderson, with 10 feature films to his name (his 11th is in production), has become such a known quantity that those keeping track of these things know relatively what to expect when heading into one of his films. The aesthetic is so defined there are entire Instagram accounts dedicated to highlighting this signature look and feel out in the real world (it’s a great account! They’ve even featured Chicago’s own Music Box Theatre!). With this 10th feature, The French Dispatch, Anderson seems to be in on the joke more than ever, leaning solidly into his own quirkiness and delivering a charming, star-studded affair in the form of vignettes told by journalists at an English-language magazine based in Ennui-sur-Blasé, France (oh so clever!), dispatching the town’s events and history back to small-town Kansas. Faces quite familiar to the Anderson-verse pop in and out, many only on screen for moments but just as welcome as ever, as if in celebration of this little corner of the cinematic world he’s etched out for himself. And what’s more, Anderson (who wrote the screenplay, with Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness sharing “story by” credit) strikes a commendable balance between comedy and drama, infusing the proceedings with just the right amount of emotional weight, bookended as it is by a loss felt by the entire staff at The Dispatch.
Frequent Anderson collaborator Bill Murray (he first showed up in 1998’s Rushmore) is Arthur Howitzer Jr., the American publisher of “The French Dispatch,” a magazine housed on the top floor of a vintage French walk-up and staffed by the likes of Owen Wilson (as travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac), Frances McDormand (as investigative journalist Lucinda Krementz), Tilda Swinton (lecturer and art critic J.K.L. Berensen), and Jeffrey Wright (food writer Roebuck Wright). Each of the journalists gets a section of the film to share their stories for the latest issue of the magazine, and each of their submissions is chock-full of drama, action, humor and heart. Berensen recounts the tale of an artistic inmate (Benicio del Toro) who paints an abstract rendering of one of his guards (Léa Seydoux), a piece of art that catches the attention of a fellow inmate (and art dealer, played by Adrien Brody) and sets off an art world frenzy. Sazerac takes us through the streets of Ennui on a bike tour of the small town and all its charms. Krementz is embedded with a student revolution, becoming particularly close to one of its organizers, Zeffirrelli (Timothée Chalamet) and reporting back on the student’s clashes with authorities. And Wright, who’s supposed to be filing a story about a police chef (yes chef, not chief; whatever that is, Wes) but goes deep into a kidnapping story with cameos by Mathieu Almaric, Saoirse Ronan, and more. Each story could probably have been a film of its own if Anderson had the time, interest and budget, so it’s a credit to the filmmaker that he’s found creative and engaging ways to weave them all together into this romp.
As varied as the vignettes are, Anderson is just as eclectic in his styles here, incorporating practically every filmmaking device and approach he’s toyed with previously. Combined, it’s a sort of Wes Anderson master cut. There are color scenes and black and white scenes. There are widescreen aspect ratios and 4:3 ratios. There’s stop-motion animation and, for one entire action sequence, a cheeky animated take on a car chase and police pursuit. There’s the endless easter eggs if you can spot them as the scenes unfold, like the café where the student protesters meet: it’s called Le Sans Blague (translation: No Kidding), Anderson nodding to us through his set design that he gets it, too. It’s all so damn charming, as if he’s right there in the theater next to us, nudging us with his elbow, giggling and saying, “See? Get it?? Get it?!” Yes, Wes, we do. Happily.
Promotional materials for the film describe it as “a love letter to journalists,” and in plenty of ways, that’s very true. Each vignette, as well as Murray’s exasperated yet endearing publisher, is an appreciation for the effort, talent and perspective that goes into reporting, a sort of statement on what’s lost when newsrooms shutter and small-town reporting disappears. There’s a tinge of nostalgia, too, the whole film taking place in a sort of non-descript retro past where cell phones and the internet don’t exist and a publication like “The French Dispatch” is a window into a whole new world for the citizens back in Kansas. But more than that, this is Wes Anderson’s love letter to Wes Anderson fans. From Bottle Rocket and Rushmore to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s as if it’s all been leading up to this, the filmmaker basking in his own personal spotlight and all the rest of us getting to enjoy its glow.
The French Dispatch is now playing in theaters.
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