Movie Review: The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson has always been a bit too…Wes Anderson for me, you know?

Which is not to say that I don’t admire his work. As a filmmaker, he’s got an incredibly singular vision, unique and pretty much unmatched in the mainstream. Pulling from a stable of brilliant actors who all seem desperate to come back and work with him over and over again, it’s clear that he’s coming up with roles and stories that actors want to play and star in; he’s been a critical darling for more than a decade now, with his idiosyncratic and lovingly-crafted worlds and the offbeat, strange little stories that take place within them.

But I’ll be honest with you: I generally find his work a little…much. Fantastic Mr Fox aside, which is luckily directed by the excellent source material, I always hit a point in his movies where the idiosyncrasies become a little too idiosyncratic for my liking. I love directors with a specific style, and there’s no doubt that Anderson has it to spare, but that ultra-cutesy, Sylvanian-Families feel is something that I always felt I was best suited to enjoy in small doses.

Which brings me to The French Dispatch, his latest: following a small American newspaper’s cult-popular foreign section, populated by a collection of eccentric reporters in various fields, after their creator and editor (Bill Murray) passes away and leaves them with one final copy to put together.

And this particular premise, I think, is the best delivery system for Anderson’s specific brand of filmmaking. The film is broken down into a collection of shorter stories, each following a different reporter (Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffery Wright) as they pursue separate articles tied in to the small and exceptionally French town of Ennui. That limited screentime and focus allows for a less rambling and more direct version of Anderson’s storytelling; there’s still that gorgeous scenery, that beautiful scene-setting, those quirky and engaging characters, but there’s a sense of forward momentum that keeps him from getting grating. His stories are so often slight that forcing them to carry a full movie feels a little silly; here, that micro-fiction feel gives Anderson and company room to play without sagging in the middle.

There’s no dearth of ideas here, but there’s a focus and a sense of reigning-in and editing to leave nothing but the best that lends The French Dispatch an air of confident directorial aplomb. That whip-smart and pin-sharp script doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it, as Anderson tries to give his exceptionally talented leads space to show off their ridiculous talent (oh, and makes sure to give Timothee Chalamet a chance to take the piss out of himself a little, because he needs to be kept in check now that everyone loves him in Dune so much).

Add to this the fabulous performances from the consistently great actors at the film’s heart, and the simple framing device which allows for a little pathos as the reporters and other staff reflect on their relationship with the late Murray, and it’s a movie which leaves room to explore the cooperation that comes with creation (much like fellow auteur David Fincher’s latest, Mank) in its overarching storyline. For me, it’s the perfect way to explore Wes Anderson’s worlds; bite-size, whimsical, wistful, but without straining each story to keep its charm over a full ninety minutes.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via NME)

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