I really enjoyed Wes Anderson’s last two films, Isle of Dogs and Grand Budapest Hotel. But sitting through The French Dispatch felt like an ordeal and if there had been another story in this portmanteau collection I would have walked out of the cinema. By the end I felt queasy, as if I had eaten a smorgasbord of dainty snacks. It was too much. De trop, as they say in France.
Anderson’s visual style is always busy and inventive, charming and humourous. It usually matches his narratives in a coherent way. But here he throws the kitchen sink at us: we are bombarded by images, text, sounds and (he hopes) smells, randomly moving from monochrome to colour. We are asked to assimilate the stories of myriad characters in five different sections (if we include the intro and conclusion). It is the cinematic equivalent of trying to read a book written in different cases and fonts, with footnotes, doodles, diversions, instructions and cartoons. Fun for a while, but ultimately tiresome.
The French Dispatch starts with a wonderful tableau vivant of French town Ennui-sur-Blasé waking up for the day, its inhabitants going about their business. A beret-wearing Owen Wilson pedals around on his racing bike, giving us a guided tour of this quirky place. Anderson seems to be nodding his hat to the films of Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle; Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amelie).
But this refreshing aperitif is soon replaced by a more indigestible main course. Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), editor of The French Dispatch, an ex-pat edition of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, has just been found dead in his office. His eclectic team of journalists gather to discuss how best to honour his memory. In tribute, they decide to write stories full of the ingredients that he loved – art, politics, crime and food.
Story 1: The Concrete Masterpiece, in which a mad criminal painter (Benicio Del Toro) produces a series of abstract portraits of his guard (Lea Seydoux), who poses naked for him. These cause a stir in the art world and also inspire a prison riot.
More riots are on the menu in the second story, Revisions to a Manifesto, set during les évènements of Paris in 1968. A deadpan Timothee Chalamet, unruly hair à la Charlie Chaplin, sits in a bath smoking Gauloises, editing his list of youthful demands. He also sits in bed with an equally po-faced Frances McDormand.
Then we have The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, in which a police chief’s (Jeffrey Wright) life is turned upside-down when his son is kidnapped. Half way through this story Anderson switches to cartoonish animation for the chase scenes, which adds more visual flair to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the score, with its annoying and relentless 2-note oompah organ riff made me feel sick.
Wes Anderson afficionados will no doubt return to The French Dispatch to discover things they missed first time around. The auteur has said that his film was “inspired by The New Yorker and the kind of writers they’re famous for publishing” (see the end credits for a list, including the likes of James Thurber). As a tribute to French cinema it is a bit hit and miss.
There is a speech by one character at the end in which Anderson tries to give meaning to what we have just watched. Something about life’s rich tapestry and inclusivity, the joy of writing about different people and places. But by then my brain was fried. I was all Wessed-out.