By Erika Mathieu
As a writer/journalist and longtime fan of Wes Anderson’s eccentric and distinct style, I was eager to watch and review his latest feature, The French Dispatch, which made its way to digital release mid-December, 2021. Stacked with the usual Wes Anderson suspects, including Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton, among many others the film tells a series of distinct stories through the familiar lens of Anderson’s signature hyper-stylized approach to filmmaking.
The French Dispatch is centred around a newspaper editor who dies suddenly. As is expressed in his last will and testament, the publication of the newspaper will cease immediately following one final farewell issue in which four articles are published, along with the editor’s (Bill Murray) obituary.
Each “chapter” of the film exists as a standalone, but the tales never really feel that disparate. Both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch are visually similar. Both are shot in the near obsolete aspect ratio of 1:37:1, known as the academy ratio, giving each respective film a distinct look and feel, as it is no longer conventional to shoot this way. The French Dispatch also mirrors some of the aspects of European architecture captured in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Both of these movies utilize colour in very distinct ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel features a rich, robust, and carefully curated colour palette, and the nuances of Anderson’s colour choices in Grand Budapest alone warrants its own analysis.
The French Dispatch is similarly purposeful in both its use of colour as well as the absence of colour, as black and white dominates the respective narrative, and colourized segments pepper the stories intermittently, much like a newspaper. This clever detail wasn’t a detraction though, as the “lack” of colour made the colourized scenes seem that much more significant and rich.
Arguably, The Grand Budapest Hotel is more narratively cohesive, and while Anderson embraces opportunities to flesh out the plot’s details in creatively diverse settings, The French Dispatch is in essence, four stories, rather than one overarching narrative. This is not to say that The French Dispatch lacks cohesion. Despite being an anthology, the chapters in Anderson’s latest each feel as though they belong together.
The thing is with Anderson’s hyper-stylized approach is that you either love it or hate it, which is the case with so many film auteurs who have defined themselves within their own stylistically unique conventions. On one hand, the style-heavy, neurotically symmetrical, and sometimes experimental approach to cinematography is a thing of visual spectacle. There is no denying that The French Dispatch refuses to commit to convention observed in its more mainstream contemporary counterparts. Particularly in an age where mainstream film is dominated by superhero productions. Of course, this genre serves an ever-growing demand for new super-people, but oftentimes can be categorized as undoubtedly formulaic, rarely defying the conventions of the genre.
Although some people may find there to be an air of self-righteousness in Anderson’s films, I disagree. However weird, divergent, or experimental, his work always maintains a playful levity. Even when dealing with themes of loss, or war, or madness. Which is not to say these themes are undermined, just approached with a sense of amiability.
And while not overly sanctimonious, The French Dispatch is conscious of its pompousness in a way that kind of makes me like it even more. The writing, as always with Anderson’s films, is top notch. The fixation on visual perspective creates feelings of sublimity, even in interior spaces, particularly in the first story, “The Concrete Masterpiece” and the actors feel well-connected with their characters who feel genuinely lived in, regardless of screen time.
At this point, Anderson has established himself as that director, and viewers have come to expect such heavily stylized cinematography, tangential expansions of the main narrative, and visually striking colour palettes. I think it falls a bit short compared to some of his other films but is still worth the watch, even if you are unfamiliar with his other work. The succinct and well-paced instalments of narrative create a really low-risk viewing experience and is fun, despite the eccentricities.