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The French Dispatch ★★★★

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Director: Wes Anderson

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Benicio Del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Stephen Park, Jeffrey Wright

Released: 22nd October 2021 (UK)

Marking Wes Anderson’s tenth directorial feature and his biggest ensemble cast so far, The French Dispatch follows a series of vignettes that are to be featured in the final issue of The French Dispatch, a fictional Kansas newspaper with an overseas office based in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.

As the film opens, we see that this particular edition of The French Dispatch serves as an obituary to its late editor, the deadpan, crying-hating Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). In an elaborate display of admiration for the editorial process, we see him peruse each of his writers’ work with cutthroat decisions and a simple motto: “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” In other words, his writers are unapologetically extravagant with their words – so much so that we quickly see the intricacy of The French Dispatch step into high gear when these editorial pieces come to life.

Among the stories is ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, which follows an art lecture given by staff writer JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton) about an incarcerated and unhinged artist (Benecio del Toro), his muse (Léa Seydoux), and an opportunistic art dealer (Adrien Brody); ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ by politics reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) as she follows a protest led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ by food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), which is mostly focused on a kidnap.

It is fair to say The French Dispatch is easily Anderson’s most ambitious project to date. There is a melee of in-depth vignettes, detailed writer accounts and an impressive ensemble cast – put simply, there is a lot to handle. Due to this, the individual narratives of the vignettes drag in places so each story resonates with the audiences in different ways. The travel piece by cyclist writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) is incredibly brief, ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ is perplexing in places, and ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ offers a thorough yet complex look into a doomed affair encased among murals. With a sense of inconsistency running throughout the film, it creates a domino effect that affects the characters in the articles, the offbeat dialogue, and the narrative as a whole.

In addition, each story focuses on the lives or events involving a man, which denies the film’s numerous actresses a chance to shine. Although there are notable cast members such as Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan and Lois Smith, notable characteristics amid The French Dispatch’s strong female performances – specifically those from Seydoux, Swinton and McDormand – are pushed aside to retain the focus on the vignette’s key subject, namely a man.

However, this is a Wes Anderson production so its biggest draw is understandably its visuals. With his latest film being a rich celebration of French cinema, the filmmaker doesn’t hold himself back in terms of aesthetics. There are quaint French buildings, a variety of intricate scenes, and even scrolling shots that may have been worthy competitors of the 2016 Mannequin Challenge. Along with his love of symmetrical compositions and Alexandre Desplat’s playful score, the overwhelming amount of detail in each scene amid bouts of monochrome and muted technicolour becomes a feast on the eyes that celebrates life’s little things. In addition, the scenes in each vignette blend together with the artistic precision of a stage play, which makes it easy for audiences to forget that they are only in a chapter of a story – or in this case, a New Yorker-esque journal.

Overall, Anderson tries to outdo his previous projects by doubling down on his trademark elements. His ambitions fail to overcome some inconsistencies, but The French Dispatch ultimately delivers in comedy and style to create a whimsical, chaotic yet visually stylish feature that speaks to the Francophile within us.

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