The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s newest film, takes artistic leaps that deviate from his well-known and aesthetically pleasing norm while still staying true to his sought-after style. Released in the US on October 22, The French Dispatch features the signature cast of stars that accompany most Anderson films. Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, and many more play an eclectic group of characters that immerse themselves in Anderson’s semi-real world. This world becomes a backdrop for the various happenings in a fictional 20th century France that are so eloquently reported by the French foreign bureau of a Kansas newspaper.
The French Dispatch details the story-making of American journalists who work for the eponymous magazine of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Founded and run by Murray’s character, Arthur Howitzer, The French Dispatch is a journal that enthralls readers across the globe. The outer frame of the film is the newsroom, where the editors lay out the stories for publishing, sending the audience into nested narratives of each “written” piece.
First, Wilson introduces Ennui, the French city where most of the film takes place, as a bicycling reporter. Next, a portrait of an imprisoned artist takes jocular jabs at modern art and its lucrative nature. The manifesto of perhaps the film’s most anticipated character, played by Timothée Chalamet, showcases the city’s newest political revolution. Finally, a wild chase for the police chief’s son overshadows the intended look at Lt. Nescaffier, the greatest chef in the city.
Each sequence features the common aspects of an awe-inspiring Anderson film. Symmetry and beautiful yet unnatural colors accompany almost every scene. Elegant and almost cartoon-like costumes throw themselves on the actors, and whimsical plot lines and dialogue exemplify the mastery of Anderson and his films.
The scenery of the film produces utter envy in the audience of the fact that they will never be able to live in Anderson’s Ennui. This may be the peak of Anderson’s vision in set design. The main palette follows the plot both subtly within the lighting and props as well as explicitly through its assimilation into buildings and full sets.
Perhaps what makes this Anderson’s best, however, is his transition to black and white. An aberration from color, something usually crucial to an Anderson film, shows he is not afraid to leap beyond what he knows. The last time he filmed in black and white was when he couldn’t afford a color camera for the short film, “Bottle Rocket.” Now, this change in Anderson’s newest film brings him back to his roots, which makes the film almost nostalgic. However, the artistic leap can just be seen as an attempt to stay true to the idea that these stories come from within a magazine. The lines printed in black and white text simply translate to black and white scenes. No matter what, this forces Anderson to create color through dialogue and action. No longer relying on what he has mastered, Anderson challenges himself by leaping out of the box and making something that cements him as one of the greatest directors of our time.
Anderson continues this mix of traditional style and new experiments throughout the film. Perhaps “plotless” in nature, the all-encompassing narrative still features stories that create plots within themselves. I would even go as far as calling this the film equivalent of James Joyce’s anthological masterpiece, “Dubliners.”
While this storyline may be new, Anderson’s snappy and witty dialogue does not falter. The line “I feel shy about my new muscles,” spoken by Chalamet’s character, is just one of the many lines audiences will remember for years.
This new narrative style allows for more whimsical interactions since most characters don’t follow the main progression. No longer required to make heartfelt confessions or meaningful conclusions in order to fit into a standard plot structure, these characters can fully embody their peculiarity.
While the acting and storytelling are utterly superb, the one man who failed ferociously was none other than Chalamet.
A seemingly auspicious addition to Anderson’s casting pool, Chalamet fell short in his role as the young revolutionary, Zeffirelli. Tasked with presenting a strong facade of a naïve and blissfully unaware French boy, Chalamet instead seemed angry, American, and ambivalent. There were even moments in which Chalamet’s tone reminded me of his disastrous and cringe-worthy appearance on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps too overwhelmed with his other role in Dune, which was released on the same day, Chalamet was underprepared and his performance was lackluster and disappointing.
My other qualm with Anderson is his lack of diversity. Known for casting the whitest Hollywood has to offer, his character of Roebuck Wright may have saved him some criticism. Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright, is a classy journalist who tells the final story in the magazine. Erudite and verbose, Wright is one of my favorite characters in the entire film. Of course, so much still needs to change with Anderson’s casting, but I believe this is a step in the right direction.
The French Dispatch is a beautiful ode to journalism that showcases the magic of storytelling. Finishing the film with a thank-you to a list of journalists, Anderson celebrates this art by painting it in such a wonderful way. Hopefully, audiences will see the importance of such storytelling and learn to appreciate journalism through this film.
The artistic leaps that Wes Anderson takes make for an evolution in the annals of his filmography. This adventure solidifies Anderson as more than a one-trick pony, and some may even say that this is his best work yet. A personal frontrunner for Best Picture, I’m excited to see The French Dispatch’s status come Oscar season.