A story in three parts, the film charts the creation of a final edition of the ‘French Dispatch’ in the wake of the death of its editor. Anderson presents us three stories, about art, revolution and food, based on real articles and writers like Mavis Gallant, Samuel Behrman and James Baldwin.
The film’s roots in reality end here, and the narrative is full of the usual escapist storytelling Anderson is so apt at. The film is an escape to an almost past, a time of rotary dial telephones, bicycles, well-paid journalists, revolutionary students and creative freedom. This world is one you won't find anywhere else in cinema. Anderson plays with colour, black and white, four by three shots, wide shots, live-action and animation. Each of these shots is packed with intentional detail, put together more like a set on stage than one on camera, as if each item has been brought to fill the space - moving walls and cutaway sets augment this theatrical sense. Robert D.Yeoman, the cinematographer who has worked on every single one of Anderson’s live-action projects, moves us across these spaces, framing shots with the perfect symmetry and picturesque aesthetic that has become so acclaimed in Anderson’s work.
Alexandre Desplat’s polyphonic score of jazz-like music occupies the background of this crafted set. Often it sounds almost like the music from a toy box, playing playful, sweet tunes. This score is accompanied by the 60s French rock music Anderson loves his characters to listen to. The inclusion of a French cover of Nancy Sinatra's ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’’, encapsulates the nostalgic yet Mediterranean feel of this film.
The people Anderson chooses to fill these spaces are outstanding. The film’s cast is as packed as its sets. Anderson will have you sitting up in your seat as you realise that genuinely almost every role is occupied by a celebrated actor. Anderson’s favourites, like Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton feature, as well as additions from Hollywood’s up and coming, such as Timothee Chalomet and Saoirse Ronan. It works brilliantly, watching Oscar winners like Norton and Frances McDormand navigate the Anderson style of dry, witty dialogue, often in scenes that give these actors only one or two lines.
This cast, full of so many characters, in a hundred minute run time, often holds back our ability to connect with them. The anthological form of The French Dispatch means we don’t quite get to spend enough time in the company of these characters to feel the usual connections we establish. A Wes Anderson Character is typically eccentric in name and nature, holding traits that can be studied throughout an entire feature-length film. My personal favourite was Adrien Brody in his role as Julien Cadazio, able to bring so much wit and presence to his role as an art dealer, charismatic in his experience of Anderson’s scripts, working the whip pans and shallow shots to his performance’s advantage and disrupting the symmetrical sets with his movement. However, his role is reduced to only half an hour or so, and I was left unsatisfied, desperate for a more developed character arc.
Maybe this is what Anderson wanted- the feel of a newspaper - as he turns the page for the viewer to focus on the next brief story in his film. If so, it is the usual charm of Anderson movies that are lost through this decision. For me, there is no great emotional takeaway, unlike films like The Grand Budapest or Moonrise Kingdom, which left me moved by their touching stories of humanity. The French Dispatch chooses aesthetics over emotions, and I’m undecided if that is for the overall benefit of the film.