Film review: ‘THE FRENCH DISPATCH’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The name Wes Anderson has almost replaced the word ‘idiosyncratic’ in the dictionary, so distinctive is his filmmaking style.  With their meticulous framing, candy-coloured story book images and oddball, ‘fractured fairy-tale’ humour, Anderson’s films have carved out an indelible niche in modern cinema but also divided audiences.  Few could object to his films’ exquisite cinematography and art direction but for some his verbose rapid-fire dialogue, bizarro logic and off-kilter humour reek so badly of the dreaded quirkiness that it becomes nauseating.  Has anything changed with his latest film The French Dispatch? Absolutely not, in fact, this all-star effort is like a Wes Anderson meta movie.

The French Dispatch of the title refers to a fictional magazine which began as a supplement in the Kansas City Sun but was relocated to the town of – wait for it – ‘Ennui Sur Blasé’ by its editor, the irascible Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray).  Upon his death, a final edition is published as an obituary which features some of the magazine’s most renowned articles.  These articles become a framing device to bring to life a series of strange stories that celebrate and satirise aspects of French culture, particularly art, cinema and food.

One features Owen Wilson as the laconic Herbsaint Sazerac who cycles around the idyllic looking town of Ennui in a stripy skivvy making unusual observations about its inhabitants.  In another, Anderson parodies the world of abstract art through the story of painter, Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio Del Toro) a dangerously violent prison inmate who is pacified by his muse and model (Lea Seydoux) and becomes an unusual cause célèbre.  The film also has a dig at French New Wave cinema and 1968 Paris student revolution clichés as reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) explores a university student revolt involving skinny, floppy-haired chess player Zeffereli (Timothee Chalamet) and his forthright girlfriend Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) who wears an old-school motorbike helmet the entire time.  In probably the film’s most bizarre sequence, Jeffrey Wright (yes, Felix Leiter from the Daniel Craig James Bond films) plays food journalist Roebuck Wright who, in an appropriately garish looking 1970’s TV talk show, recalls his encounter with renowned chef and police officer Lt. Nescaffier and his near-death confrontation with a devious kidnapper (Edward Norton).

There is a jolt of excitement at seeing a filmmaker attempt something unconventional and in so doing forge a unique cinematic identity and no one could deny that Anderson has broken new cinematic ground through his canon of films.  Still, The French Dispatch, like so many of Anderson’s films, too often just tantalises with style and intellectual posturing.  In a dazzling parade of images Anderson mixes his traditional vivid palette with striking black and white and animated sequences. It certainly looks wonderful and occasionally a droll, acerbic line spat out at a million miles an hour by one of the characters is actually funny.  Still, this film will test the patience of all but the most avid Anderson devotees.  Despite it’s striking visual invention and wide-ranging themes that pull in a vast array of cinematic, cultural and literary references, as well frequent Anderson obsessions like childhood nostalgia, it all feels annoyingly insubstantial and we’re constantly left asking, ‘so what’s the point, Wes old buddy?’.  It seems that, apart from exploring cinema’s aesthetic boundaries, there isn’t one and as this becomes apparent during the film, many will be checking their watches.

There may well be layers, subtleties and Easter eggs lurking in this film that, at first glance, evade most viewers’ attention but whether they give this film more substance is debatable.  This will no doubt matter little to those who enjoy the journey of a Wes Anderson film and don’t care if there’s a destination but this film is unlikely to convert those who don’t already worship at Wes’s altar.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Comedy/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Wes Anderson.

Release date: 2nd Dec 2021.

Running time: 108 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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