THE FRENCH DISPATCH film review

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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DUNE (2021) Review

Audacious sci-fi scale, but a vapid adaptation. Dune is a stunning sci-fi/action visual spectacle that delivers rich imagery and epic fight choreography; but falls short in translating the thoughtful, complex themes and mythology of the source material, which get buried in heavy handed exposition or are entirely cut. Dune (part one) is the first part of the of an epic sci-fi tale about Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto of house Atreides and Lady Jessica, a sister of the Bene Gesserit who are sent by the Padisha Emperor from their home world Caladan to govern the Planet Arrakis after the Departure of House Harkonnen. If you haven’t read the book and this sentence sounds overly expositional and convoluted to you this is how you’re going to feel throughout 80% of the films dialogues. However, I’m sure you’re not going to see Dune for the dialogue and it has plenty to offer aside from that.

Director Denis Villeneuve wanted to make this a “Star Wars for adults” and with that he succeeded. Dune boasts impressive visuals and epic conflict but in a more mature manner than the Star Wars films. Instead of using colorful light sabers people are stabbing each other with actual knives. Still not much blood is seen, thanks to the film’s PG 13 rating, but that seems to be unavoidable in today’s industry. The Designs are kept very close to the book, especially the Ornithopters which actually have flapping wings unlike in previous adaptation by David Lynch. Some of it may be because of the improved technology after nearly 40 years but I believe the production designers were definitely trying to stay faithful to the source material. All in all the depictions of technology, lifeforms and other things will satisfy fans of the book, although the production design was a bit too monochromatic for my personal taste. The visual direction is similar to other works by Villeneuve: simple and effective. The camera itself is not here to show off. That’s what the Sandworms, spaceships and battles are for. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is dark and moody, which fits the more adult tone this film is going for.

Continuing with its mission to be an adult Star Wars, it’s also more complex editing wise with mystic visions by the protagonist Paul sprinkled throughout the film by Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator editor Joe Walker. The visual effects shots are done in similar manner to the rest of the camerawork. They are impressive but only there to move the story along and not at all show-offy. The hand to hand combat sequences, of which there are quite a few, most of which look very practical are impressive as well. One can clearly see the effort the actors put into making them appear so effortless. That also includes the main cast, no stunt doubles here! There is one early fight or rather training scene between Chalamet (Paul Atreides) and Brolin (Gurney Halleck) where their skills are put on full display.

Now the actors of which this film has many and many famous ones also did very well, even despite the fact that most of their job consists of spouting exposition and fighting. Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica being the clear standout and stealing every scene she’s in. Timothée Chalamet has his edgy teenager moment, which in this case fits the character who is still coming to terms with his new place in the complicated conflicts and power structures of Dune but doesn’t really have any other stand out moments. Zendaya, the other perhaps controversial star of this film, also doesn’t stand out much, neither in a negative nor positive way. Her character only really appears in the film towards the end so there’s not really enough to see for a final verdict.

Now on to the not so good aspects of the film. Although the conflict in Dune is still very complex and probably closer to Game of Thrones than Star Wars it’s still very simplified if not dumbed down compared to the complex political intrigues and power plays of the novel to fit the limited runtime of the film format. The complex world of the Dune universe also has to be explained to viewer somehow, which here is mostly done through expositional dialogue. The exposition is well integrated to the story as Paul, the protagonist is also learning about most of these things but it can become a bit overbearing as said before. This can leave viewers who are not familiar with the source material overwhelmed and confused about the particularities of the story and story world. Nevertheless the film should still be enjoyable as an epic sci fi tale about family, power and mysticism, even if it takes some time to understand surrounding lore. Hopefully this film will also motivate a new generation of Dune fans to dive into the world that Frank Herbert created in his books.

Written by German correspondent Leon Zitz.
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