Of all the films to feature a lengthy, highly publicised delay over the last almost-two years of pandemic chaos, perhaps none held the promise of at least briefly curing the COVID blues quite like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. It’s been a very long wait since its original plan to premiere at Cannes 2020 before an August release that same year – long enough that Anderson himself is already well underway on his next film, Asteroid City – but The French Dispatch lives up to (most of) the hype.
Structured as an issue of the fictional literary magazine that lends the film its title, The French Dispatch is broken into six largely discrete vignettes – an obituary, a short travel column, three heftier long-read articles, and a back-page goodbye for the magazine’s final issue in 1975. The obituary belongs to the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray, in his ninth collaboration with Anderson), while Owen Wilson is the star of the travelogue as ‘cycling reporter’ Herbsaint Sazerac, but these two opening appetisers, funny as they are, are over in a flash.
The film really belongs to the reporters and, though the vignette structures robs The French Dispatch of some of the heart that really makes Anderson’s best films so lovely, the ability to jump from wacky story to wacky story – without any one strand ever overstaying its welcome – keeps things thoroughly entertaining throughout. The first article up sits in the magazine’s ‘Arts’ section, delivered as a lecture by reporter JKL Berenson (Tilda Swinton) about the prison-bound painting career of artist and double-murderer Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro).
As with all the segments, this one (dubbed ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’) flits back and forth between black-and-white and the glorious full colour you expect from any Anderson entry. All told, this is easily Anderson’s most visually, technically, and logistically ambitious film yet, each and every scene a miracle of thousands of moving parts – be they actors, extras, bits of set, or flourish-y visual effects – working in tandem to create an eye-popping world that straddles the cinematic and the theatrical.
‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ is perhaps the least showy of the three main segments, instead finding its staying power in memorable performances from del Toro, Swinton, Lea Seydoux (as Moses’s prison guard muse Simone), and a winking Adrien Brody (as a wealthy art collector). As might be clear, The French Dispatch is Anderson’s busiest film not in just its visuals – the short screentimes demanded by the vignette structure means he can pack in even more superstar names than he usually does.
While this segment is fairly balanced between Anderson’s trademark mix of zany humour and genuine heart, the next two find themselves at each extreme of the spectrum. Article 2, in the ‘Politics’ section, is fabulously silly, following a student uprising led by the iconoclastic young Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), who is being reported on, and slept with, by writer Lucinda Kremenz (Frances McDormand). It’s a segment packed to the gills with jokes both verbal and visual and gives Chalamet his funniest role since Lady Bird.
Finally, we hand over to food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) and his account of a visit to a private dinner with the local police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), served up by legendary chef Nescafier (Stephen Park), before being interrupted by the kidnap of the commissioner’s son. It’s this segment that really hands The French Dispatch its heart, with Wright giving what is easily the film’s standout performance and the drama of the kidnap granting some genuine thrills, not to mention even more flurries of wild visual invention from Anderson. Shootouts, aroma-induced reveries, and even an animated car chase keep you glued to the screen, while a short flashback to Roebuck Wright’s unusual interview process for the magazine adds a much-needed weight to Bill Murray’s mostly talismanic role.
The French Dispatch is, admittedly, rather shallow, which keeps it from attaining the same dizzying heights reached by The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel – which I contend remains Anderson’s masterpiece. But when a film can throw this much sheer fun and energy at you with a truly singular directorial voice reaching the peak of his stylistic powers, it would be churlish to nitpick. Sit back and cherish the ride while you’re on it – there won’t be many more purely silly and fun movies in 2021.