The French Dispatch (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It can only be ironical that Wes Anderson’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, evocative, often hilarious, picture – featuring ex-pats writing for an American magazine in the style of the New Yorker – is located in the French town of Ennui (translation: “boredom”) because it is anything but, a continuous stream of imaginative and inventive scenes, settings and characters. Where other directors make aspects of history their own (Ridley Scott, David Lean) and others lay claim to greatness by inverting genres (Quentin Tarantino), Anderson’s genius lies in creating worlds nobody else could lay claim to. Although this particular film covers just a triptych of tales, you can easily imagine Anderson has another hundred or so stories at his fingertips, all contained in his own unique universe.

You can see why actors queue up to work with him for he allows them to develop highly-individual characters far removed from their denoted screen personas.  Some like Timothy Chamalet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Lea Seydoux take advantage of this freedom to conjure deliciously realised human beings, while others such as Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton let the opportunity slip or appear  in the picture so briefly (Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban) as to make little impact. Even headliner Bill Murray, who bookends the show, is given to more inventiveness than usual, breaking up his usual deadpan  delivery to make an occasional emphatic point.

While mostly this zips along, when Anderson occasionally stops for breath the effect is electric, for example a static camera taking in the back of a tenement through which we see by virtue of various windows a waitperson’s exhausted ascent. Mostly, the tales follow their own internal logic, but when forced into a genre corner, such as a shoot-out, Anderson resorts to pure zest. And while the narrative is mostly driven by voice-over, this takes on different aspects, from a loquacious raconteur (Jeffrey Wright) to a droning lecturer (Tilda Swinton).

Clearly planning to keep one step ahead of critics who claim his movies run out of steam, Anderson heads off that issue by filming three short unconnected stories. Del Toro and Seydoux head up the best item which sees a psychotic murderer embark on an artistic career that hooks art dealer (Adrien Brody).  Those who expect Anderson to spring surprises might still be taken aback when it transpires that the nude model (Seydoux) of the prisoner (Del Toro) is in fact his gaoler. Having opened a box of twists, Anderson continues in this wild vein. Narrators attempting to impose a semblance of normality generally find themselves at odds with their subject matter. In the second tale, as off-beat a student revolutionary as you could find, Chamalet breathes as much life into the character as he appeared stultified in trying to create a real person in the misfiring Dune (2021). Crime is not usually best served best by asides and droll self-importance but Wright, in the final story, manages to tie up in knots what should a taut kidnapping tale.   

If you come looking for star turns by Bill Murray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, you will be sorely disappointed but if you willing to settle for an energetic, fresh, nostalgic take on an imaginary France, with plenty laugh out loud moments, you should come away well satisfied. Of course whether the French will feel as insulted as by television show Emily in Paris remains to be seen but I’m sure the Hungarians did not take The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) too literally.

I notice that this received a platform release in the States and broke per-cinema box office records in the process and I wonder what might have been the fate of The Last Duel (2021), regardless of its budget, had it opted for a similar launch approach.

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