An ambitious film that struggles under its own weight due to a stuttering middle act. The French Dispatch becomes unwieldy and, as such, loses the energy that the opening act had built. Regardless it is still a wonderful love letter to print journalism.
The French Dispatch, a high-brow magazine based in the fictional Gallic town of Blasé-sur-Ennui, has reached its end. Its founder (Bill Murray) has died, and his beloved creation looks set to shut down operations. In doing so, its staff reflect nostalgically on the publication’s halcyon days, when the writers were as celebrated as the subjects they covered. There’s the art critic (Tilda Swinton) who regales with the story of a jailed painter’s (Benicio Del Toro) obsession with his muse (Léa Seydoux); a political correspondent (Frances McDormand) whose ‘current affairs’ once included a young insurgent (Timothée Chalamet); and the rarefied food critic (Jeffrey Wright) who becomes quite the pot-au-feu when he finds himself caught up in a kidnapping plot.
There are many joys within Wes Andersons The French Dispatch, none more so than the stunning visuals, production and costume design that you typically expect in an Anderson film. It is easy to get lost in the rich visuals presented. Shot to perfection, each frame could be paused and admired due to how dense and complex they are. However, one thing we can always say about a Wes Anderson film, and in the case of this film, is that it looks gorgeous.
The French Dispatch falls foul of its ambition by struggling to keep its audience invested in all three of its stories. Starting strong before wavering in the middle, with the final piece salvaging the lost momentum. You can see that Anderson and his co-writers are trying to create this dense world of the magazine. The ideas come quick and fast. If Anderson could make his film longer, you would feel as if he would, such as the possible plethora of tales to be told here about the journeys of the writers of the magazine. This crammed narrative sadly has us feeling as if we are missing something important. The actual people of the magazine itself. We are meant to feel these characters as they grieve and reminisce, yet we get so little time with them and the time that we do get are probably even more substantial than that first story.
To prove this, one of the stronger moments in the film is in the opening as we learn about the magazine’s history and how Arthur worked as editor and owner. We flash through in a rather joyous manner and see a creative environment writers and journalists now could only dream of. You can’t help but smile as we run through these scenes. However, that momentum fizzles out when we reach our political correspondent.
The first story is as typical Anderson as you can get, and it works tremendously well with it almost feeling like a direct connection to Grand Budapest Hotel with its tone. Adrien Brody steals this story away from Benicio del Toro as the enigmatic Julien Cadazio. The energy he brings to this portion works so well and is in direct competition with the purposely slow nature of del Toro’s Moses Rosenthaler. They bounce off one another superbly, and with the addition of the always great Léa Seydoux, we have a trio to remember and one you almost wish had their feature film to explore their world.
Sadly, the middle portion is the weakest, running on too long and just far too stilted; it never works as well as it needs to and almost feels out of place with the rest of the film. Of course, this could be purposeful. Any good print editor will have different styles of writers for their magazine. However, here, the jarring change in tone almost derails the film, with it being far too laboured for a film that was ticking along at a fantastic pace.
Jeffrey Wright almost single-headedly brings us back on track with his closing segment, and with it takes the entire film. Using the guise of an interview show, we listen and watch his outstanding performance. This is somehow despite the segment roving around without ever really being focused. Moments come and go before we can even register them, yet because of Wright’s performance and those within his tale, you buy into it, all the same.
Throughout The French Dispatch, the feeling that something is missing never really leaves you. It looks terrific, the performances are great, but something doesn’t feel right. As if the story got away from the writers, and as said, it would have been a stronger film with tightening that middle story and giving us a touch more with the actual writers in their present day. But, alas, there is still something for everyone to enjoy here, leaving The French Dispatch to be a great treat of a film.
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