Wes Anderson movies are by in large an acquired taste.
Exceptionally dry and increasingly niche in form, his filmography represents an auteur’s sensibilities with relative apathy for how easy it would be for casual audiences to become immersed into and enjoy the worlds Anderson painstakingly creates.
Such is the case with The French Dispatch, an amalgamation of various French cinema styles combined with twee Anderson kitsch in an anthology design that makes use of elaborate production design, an extensive ensemble cast and a smorgasbord of visual easter eggs that reward multiple viewings and delight ardent fans of his cinematic eccentricities.
The film is structured around the style of the fictional New Yorker-like magazine it covers, opening with a brief introduction and then proceeding into a series of short stories that provide the framework for The French Dispatch as a whole. There’s no interconnectivity to them aside from being written by members of the magazine’s illustrious staff with occasional asides to the editor-in-chief played by Bill Murray.
Murray’s performance as Arthur Howitzer, Jr. is meant to be the emotional centerpiece of The French Dispatch, but his segments are so disparate and the information audiences learn about his character is so sparing that it’s hard to connect beyond a shallow, superficial level.
This often holds true of actors in each individual segment of the film, which range from about five to 30 minutes in length and provide such thin constructs of detail in a character’s humanity that it’s difficult not to see the actors themselves instead of those they are portraying, with two notable exceptions.
Benicio del Toro layers a conflicted soul prone to anger but with an artist’s eye and a noticeable emotional side as Moses Rosenthaler, the primary character of the first major story arc, The Concrete Masterpiece. His gruff persona is played both for comedic laughs and serious intensity and it’s in the softer moments opposite Léa Seydoux or Adrian Brody that a hidden warmth starts to emerge and makes his segment the most compelling of the entire feature.
Similarly, Jeffrey Wright’s take on a James Baldwin-esque character narrating and living through the events of a kidnapping set in the backdrop of a profile on police cuisine seems outlandish at first glance. But it’s played with such calm, considered patience as his Roebuck Wright slowly meters out dialogue as if savoring each word like the last morsel of a fine French dessert that keeps viewers intrigued by what’s still to come.
It’s harder for Wright to pull this off, especially, as his segment comes towards the end of the laborious feature and immediately follows a dense yet meandering political satire featuring Oscar winner Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet that is the most taxing on viewers’ patience and the least accessible to casual audiences.
The overextended ensemble cast virtually assures few stand out and all blend together in a larger tableau of ennui that seems deliberate on the part of a filmmaker who quite literally sets his film in a French town called Ennui.
Robert D. Yeoman’s cinematography is striking throughout in spite of Anderson’s seemingly at random leaps between color and black and white and the occasional hand drawn animation as well. It’s framed in such a way to highlight the intricacy of Adam Stockhausen’s production design and maintain a constant visual spectacle for audiences to get lost in.
Alexandre Desplat’s uniquely kitsch yet charming score provides a wonderful, world-building ambiance to each story and helps loosely bind the disparate parts together.
While not truly in contention for major accolades this season, award nominations seem likely for The French Dispatch in many technical categories such as production design, costuming, hair/makeup and lesser odds for cinematography and editing in crowded fields.
As is the case with almost all of his films, there’s too much quality filmmaking being done in The French Dispatch to totally dismiss this latest Anderson feature, no matter how filled it is with European-influenced eccentricity. However, it’s only recommended for the most ardent of cinephiles willing to engage with the high-brow humor and dense subject matter to find the core of what makes an Anderson film memorable.