The French Dispatch (2021) December 9th, 2021
The French Dispatch is an anthology film from writer/director Wes Anderson comprised of three short stories contextualized as tales from the final issue of the titular fictional magazine. The first story acts as a bookend establishing the magazine’s history, purpose, and culture with an Owen Wilson led segment titled The Cycling Reporter profiling Ennui, the French city, where the majority of the film’s set. Bill Murray plays the French Dispatch’s editor in chief/owner in the prologue/epilogue titled Obituary, who’s last will and testament establish the magazine must publish its last issue and liquidate all assets after his recent death.
The first features Benicio Del Toro as a deranged painter incarcerated for decapitating two bartenders. His paintings garner international attention and somewhat fabricated fame due to the tireless promotions of his former co-inmate played by Adrian Brody. The Concrete Masterpiece is the best of the three. Slower and more deliberate it offers the audience an opportunity to appreciate the work put into making The French Dispatch a masterpiece itself. Del Toro is as incredible as one expects and the chemistry between him, Adrian Brody and Léa Seydoux towers above the rest in the picture. A sublimely crafted piece of filmmaking, this segment is my distinguished favorite.
Next is Revisions to a Manifesto is the story of a French evolution unlike any other starring the Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand. Chalamet plays the late leader of a youth revolution bent on fighting against all things adult, especially conscription. Tasked with chronicling these events for the magazine, McDormand’s character develops an ethically compromised sexual relationship with the young leader even going so far as to edit his manifesto. Naturally this undermines the document’s authenticity and undermines his status as a child revolutionary. Anderson continues to pull out all the stops in this production utilizing rollaway sets and animation to continually push the boundaries of reality in his signature style.
The final short titled The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner features Jeffery Wright’s character reciting an article he wrote for the French Dispatch verbatim on Liev Schreiber’s character’s talk show. His story not only details how he became a reporter for the French Dispatch but also the events of a night which saw the Police Commissioners son kidnapped by a gang of ne’er-do-wells and prostitutes. The Commissioner’s ingenious solution was to send in his world famous personal chef into the kidnapper’s den and feed them poisoned radishes. This frantic short full shot composition, on-screen-performances, and clever humor equal to that of its predecessors climaxes with the chef eating his own poisoned food and lamenting that he’ll never again taste the unique flavors contained in the poison.
Concurrent observations are difficult for many to grasp. If an opinion is not in stark contrast to another or too nuanced it is unclear and difficult to appreciate. Embracing the idea that two disparate (maybe even conflicting) ideas can exist at the same time is essential to understanding my perspective on this film. In the same way the chef’s radishes were masterfully prepared by an artisan chef whose skills perfectly achieved his vision but were ultimately lethally toxic, so is The French Dispatch toxic to me.
For all its qualities The French Dispatch is a self indulgent, visually overstimulating, sometimes unwatchable masterpiece. I cannot imagine a director taking more care in shot composition or clever storytelling than Wes Anderson. From meticulously composed shots reminiscent of so many classic New Yorker covers, to the massive sets necessary to achieve the multi-segmented dolly shots he’s made famous, to no less than two miniatures/full scale sets designed in the style of a bisected diagram of airplanes, Wes Anderson shows he’s achieved his final form by using all the tools he’s developed over his storied career to produce a film that is uniquely and unmistakably his. Apparently no one could stop him.
There are no breaks from how Andersonesque this Wes Anderson movie is. In a cinema landscape stuffed with predictable mass-produced pap, Anderson’s style is usually a breath of awesome fresh air but as the vignettes in The French Dispatch progress they become frenetic. The frames become denser and difficult to comprehend as the editing accelerates faster and faster. Stylistic choices like the decision to put subtitles in random spots in the frame and sometimes appearing on screen left to right from bottom to top makes it very difficult to focus on the magnificence of his filmmaking because he couldn’t help but mix it up with the subtitles. I’ve watched The French Dispatch twice and I know there are frames in it I’ve never seen because the director couldn’t help but disrupt subtitle conventions. How avant-garde.
Anderson’s typically fast paced editing and loquacious dialogue are another hallmark of his signature style, but they become a hinderance to the audience when 3-out-of-5 on-screen characters are simultaneously speaking in French but you can’t predict where to look to read the subtitles because golden-boy decided he was going to fuck with their conventional placement. There’s a moment in The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner where the audience is required to monitor slowly changing shots of food in a small frame on screen left and on screen right a quickly edited roll-call sequence introducing us to all the quirky policemen the Commissioner is enlisting to rescue his kidnapped son. But all the dialogue with that information is being spoken in French meaning the far right frame has its own subtitles that are difficult to read while listening to Jeffery Wright’s Andersonesque narration of the gourmet food on frame left capping off an impressive ADHDe nu mont.
At this point in the decadent filmmaking bacchanalia I need the vomitorium. Simply put, it’s too much of a good thing. Witnessing an auteur director create a visionary work of brilliance after decades of honing his craft is an uncommon treat. Unfortunately for me that triumph is marred by creative choices I see as the director indulging his own ego at the expense of his audience. It’s the exquisite moldy flavor of the poisonous salt in a masterfully prepared radish.
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