A quirky, stylistic motion picture in which the production design is the real star. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch delivers everything you expect from his authorship of cinema, but not much else; it’s a bountiful buffet of Andersonisms, in an anthology commenting on the dying print media industry; but while you’ll chuckle here and there, the stories themselves mostly fall flat. No doubt about it, that this film is overflowing with talent on and off screen; it’s not often that we get a single motion picture with such a prolific all-star cast. But even the whimsical production design and dry humor, that we automatically expect from an Anderson film, isn’t enough to compensate for the lackluster “short films” within the larger anthology cataloging the final printing of The French Dispatch magazine. No mistaking it, every visual element of the mise-en-scene is crafted with immense care! But the weakness in this film is the lack of ability for the vast majority of audiences (from cinephiles to those whom simply want to be entertained–and there’s nothing wrong with that, lest we forget) to connect with an of the individual characters, let alone the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s it: lack of relatability; that is the fly in the ointment.
A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch.”
If you were hoping for another Grand Budapest Hotel or Rushmore, then I’m afraid that you may be disappointed. That said, if you go in with a desire to appreciate a masterful visual storytelling methodology, then you will be impressed and even delighted. While I find the characters themselves lacking in their ability to connect with the audience, this motion picture delivers abundantly in a beautifully eclectic blend of cinematic and stage craft that draws audiences into a stylistic world as can only be dreamt by Wes Anderson.
Before I talk about what didn’t work for me in this film, I want to highlight what was brilliantly executed. And that’s the imaginative visual design as can only be conceived by Wes Anderson. Even the most scholarly Anderson aficionados will be surprised by the diversity in visual expression of the immersive world on screen. Not only do we get the hybrid film/stage craft in production design, but we even have moments that the story is being told though the medium of a graphic novel. What Anderson can do that few filmmakers can is create massive depth in the world on screen. Furthermore, there is this absolute beauty in the deceptively simple approach. There is more love in the production design in a single frame of this film (and his films in general) than in most films in their entirety. From the very first frame of the film, it is clear that you are about to watch a Wes Anderson film! Few directors have achieved the degree of cinematic authorship that he has. In my classroom, I talk about him with the likes of Hitchcock and Burton (80s-90s), two filmmakers who’s stylistic approach to cinematic storytelling was so incredibly well-defined that they transformed into brands themselves.
I am often picky when I observe grayscale imagery in a film. Why? Because, most of the time, the filmmaker simply desaturates the color image to give it that old school grayscale (commonly referred to as black and white) look and feel. Not having seen any behind the scenes featurettes, I cannot confirm this, but the segments of the film that are grayscale appear to have been lit for grayscale. This is HUGE. The way a filmmaker lights for grayscale is NOT the same as it is for color. That is why, when a filmmaker simply removes the color from the image, that there is something that doesn’t look quite right or authentic in the image. In true grayscale filmmaking, the shades of gray go from a dark charcoal to almost white–that is the rage of shades of gray. So I greatly appreciate these moments in the film because I could observe the care that Anderson put into the filming of these scenes.
The French Dispatch is a collection of short stories (films) that are the visual extension of their written counterparts. Not written as in the screenplay, but written as in they are they represent the last stories for the final issue of The French Dispatch. So what we have here is a self-reflexive motion picture about the dying print media industry. If you need a reference, think LIFE magazine. We are watching the final issue of a legacy travel magazine come together as the narrator guides us through every story in the issue. It’s very much a love letter to print media, which is increasingly becoming extinct. If you are a print journalist working for a legacy publication, then this story will likely resonate with you. For everyone else, it won’t likely pack the same comedic punch.
This film is overflowing with characters! But what’s ironic, is that with all those characters, there aren’t really any that will likely connect with the audience. There is this wall there, a sort of separation between these characters and the audience. And this separation is felt all through the stories that fall flat, albeit, you’ll chuckle here and there. There is a great disconnect between the characters & story and the audience. They’re all generally likable–which is a problem. Films are comprised of characters we love and love to hate. When you generally (again, not fervently) like all the characters, the stakes are never high. The journalists writing the stories and the characters therein are incredibly one-dimensional with little to no growth arc. Neither the audience nor the characters are taken on a journey. And the short story that is the most blase´ and perfunctory of all is the one featuring Timotee´ Chalamet as the one-dimensional, self-centered student socio-political activist that has been consistently highlighted in the advertising (newsflash: kids and teens are rarely more enlightened than adults; don’t live your life by what’s on Tik Tok or presently being sensationalized).
If you are in the mood for a quirky out-of-this-world diversion into a whimsical world, then this film may fit the bill. If you’re looking for a substantive story, you won’t find that here. Go into it with an eager attitude to appreciate the art of the cinematic image, and that is the best approach to enjoying Anderson’s newest feature. If your favorite Anderson feature has been Grand Budapest or Rushmore prior to watching The French Dispatch, then you may find yourself wanting to go back and rewatch those for a better story.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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