Wes Anderson | 1hr 48min
In English, the quaint French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé translates to ‘Boredom on Apathy’, a wry suggestion that this may be the last place in the world a journalist would want to work. Yet it is here where the foreign bureau of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper is stationed, led by editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), and where its team of American reporters are tasked with finding stories that may be of some interest to the general public. The subjects of these articles often go about their business with all the deadpan indifference that the name of the town would suggest, and so it is entirely up to the correspondents of The French Dispatch to find life in its streets and buildings. Wes Anderson has surely closely identified with his protagonists before, but never has he tied his ethos as a storyteller so closely to characters who similarly view their profession as an opportunity to offer a jaded world their fresh insights into its own unique, distinctive beauty.
In structuring The French Dispatch as an anthology film served up in three separate episodes and a framing device concerning Howitzer’s death, Anderson reveals that he is far less concerned with any individual plot as he is with the people and culture of Ennui which these stories make up. As the newspaper nears the end of its run, there is also the nostalgic feeling that an integral part of this community will be lost, and from now on will only live on in the words of the men and women who believed in the rich history of this ordinary town. Much like the layers upon layers of flashbacks that frame The Grand Budapest Hotel, the multitude of narrators in The French Dispatch maintain an ironic detachment from the events that take place, as it is through lectures, columns, and talk show interviews that these journalists let us into worlds that one would have never otherwise expected to exist in this small, quiet corner of France.
When it comes to Anderson’s artistic construction of this town, his connection to the cinematic masters of architectural mise-en-scene and physical comedy has rarely been so pronounced as it is here. It goes without saying that all his usual stylistic idiosyncrasies are on display – the rigorous symmetry of his cinematography, the short, sharp camera movements, the heavily-curated pastel colour palettes – but when he chooses to let us sit in a wide shot to observe a man ascend multiple flights of stairs, only allowing us glimpses of him through the tiny windows scattered across the face of a diorama-like building, one can’t help but point to the use of the exact same visual gag from Jacques Tati’s French comedy Mon Oncle. In spite of these direct homages though, there isn’t much of an argument to be made that The French Dispatch comes from any filmmaker but Anderson, especially when his dogmatically formal aesthetic turns experimental in its switching between black-and-white and colour schemes within each featured article.
The first of these, ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, is orated by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) and follows a prisoner, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), whose abstract nude paintings of a guard (Léa Seydoux) capture the attention of fellow inmate and art dealer, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ is the second, and sees journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) engage a little too closely with the young leader of a student revolution, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) narrates the third, ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’, in which the son of the Ennui police force’s Commissaire is kidnapped by a notorious gang leader (Ed Norton), and resorts to sending in legendary police officer and chef, Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), to save him.
The greyscale palette which dominates these retrospective vignettes builds even further on the nostalgic distance with which Anderson interprets these stories, and yet his occasional flashes of vibrant colour reveal small breaks in this wistful demeanour, whereby the past is brought transcendently into the present and affectionately embraced in its immediate, tender beauty. There are no firm rules dictating when exactly these switches occur, but there is a consistency in the emotional beats with which they are presented – an awestruck wonder when gazing upon Moses’ paintings, facing Zeffirelli’s bright-eyed idealism, or visually feasting upon Nescaffier’s delicacies. While the black-and-white newspaper format dominates much of these flashbacks, such vivid bursts of rich hues indicate the presence of some magnificent splendour that each journalist is particularly enchanted by and may have printed in colour, or otherwise playfully depict in amusing animated sequences representing back-page comic strips.
As perfectionistic a director as Anderson is, he equally delights in the quaint imperfections of his characters and their odd fascinations, absorbing these peculiarities into his own effervescent style. Several times in The French Dispatch does he choose to freeze a scene mid-action and catch it in an immaculately staged tableau, though as he tracks his camera across it we notice the small tremors of his actors trying to remain deadly still, as if re-enacting the moment for a publicist to photograph. His love for the artifice of print journalism is only outdone by his love for the artifice of film itself, both being bound together by the passion of writers and stylists for discovering parts of the world otherwise deemed ordinary, lifting these up on public platforms for others to appreciate, and embellishing them with some modest spark of creativity. After all, no matter how tethered to the truth they are, no storyteller can resist letting a small dose of artistry creep into their work – or, if you are Wes Anderson, an enthrallingly sizeable measure of imagination.
The French Dispatch is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.