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Review: ‘The French Dispatch’ Is An Uneven But Stunning Experimental Love Letter To The Literary Arts

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at October 22, 2021

Wes Anderson’s latest has many, many hallmarks of his oeuvre—quirky characters, slick camera movement, detailed production designs, extraordinary framing, and the like—but the filmmaker is yet again trying something new in The French Dispatch. Instead of a singular feature-length narrative, we’re treated with his take on an anthology: a series of three central stories with a wraparound, all an ode to The New Yorker under the auspices of founder Harold Ross (alongside his talented stable of writers). It’s a novel albeit risky experiment, and one that largely succeeds. Make no mistake: when The French Dispatch lands, it’s a stunning charm-fest that will be watched come awards season.

The film highlights a fictional paper, The French Dispatch, in a fictional town of  Ennui-sur-Blasé, founded in Liberty, Kansas by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray). The wraparound sets the structure of the film and its three entries, each told in narrative style with heavy voiceover (it is truly a literary film) as they were a long form story in the Dispatch itself.

The first of these centers on murderous-inmate turned internationally renowned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a modern artist whose paintings of Simone (his guard, lover, and muse, played ably by Léa Seydoux) come to the attention of Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who promotes them across the art world. Easily the most charming of the three, both Del Toro and Brody turn in hilarious, complex performances in a short that both celebrates and sometimes lambastes the art world’s extravagances.

The second of the three is a send-up of 1960’s French protest culture, with young revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) struggling to complete his manifesto and keep the revolutionary fire alive while French Dispatch writer Lucinda Krementz (an always electric Frances McDormand) gets a little too close to the story (shall we say). It’s a charming entry with some quite technically accomplished set design and blocking, but overall the least engaging of the three… a tad slow by contrast without the stand-out characters of the first and third entry.

The third shows writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) attempt to write a feature on Nescaffier (Steve Park), when a kidnapping throws the profile in disarray. While the first of the three stories is perhaps the most charmingly eccentric, the third (in my estimation, the most successful), boasts the strongest action, some exceptional blocking and camera movement, and a wonderful animated sequence. Most pointedly, Wright’s multi-layered narrative gives him some subtle but truly moving character work, easily the finest, most touching work of the whole film.

Overall, The French Dispatch is a quirky experiment in form from Anderson. On a technical level he’s never been better, while the film’s experimentation in form (both in its anthology format and in the unique shift into animation in one of the segments) are a visual treat. He’s willing to risk, and it largely pays off. At the same time, it’s not without flaws. The film’s literary reliance on narration is, at times, overdrawn, while the three stories are not equally successful. The beginning and end stories are strong, with the first dripping with charm, humor, and sensuality, while the third boasts novel experimentation, strong action, and an incredible central performance. By contrast, the middle narrative suffers from a comparably slow pace and less memorable performances and humor elements, and with it sandwiched between two strong entries one really, really feels it.

Altogether, The French Dispatch is a unique departure from a director who refuses to rest on his rhetorical laurels. It’s uneven and flawed in ways that anthologies often can be, but the strength of the first and third entries make it a must-see for Anderson fans (and, I’d venture, for those less enamored by his filmography as well). It’s a definite strong contender come awards season, and one that shouldn’t be missed.

The French Dispatch is in theaters.


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