I went into this one with a bit of trepidation. Different mates, all of whom I love and trust, had variously described the film as great and a complete waste of their time. Which I guess is par for the course of a film by Wes Anderson, who usually concentrates more on style than substance. Doubly so for a film which is essentially based on stories from magazines like the New Yorker, not something I tend to read for pleasure.
The French Dispatch is a supplement of a Kansas newspaper, though it is based in a French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé (I can already feel the room dividing between those who find the name charming, those who find it whimsical, and those who have just thrown up their arms in annoyance). It is home to the US’s greatest and most idiosyncratic exile journalists.
After a few pretty/twee (delete according to preference) shots, we are introduced to some of the staff. There’s the publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray going full Bill Murray), and the pedantic grammar checker. Then there’s the bicycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac who writes tales of degradation that he sees on his travels through the town.
Following these introductions we go into 3 unrelated short stories. First there’s Moses Rosenthaler, whose anger management problems have caused him to be jailed for a double homicide. In jail he has taken up painting abstract nudes of his warder, and has become a sensation in the still small modern art community. An art dealer who is in jail for tax evasion sees a chance of profiting from the sensation which hasn’t quite happened yet.
The second story is about Lucinda Krementz who goes to objectively report on something which looks suspiciously like the Événements of May 1968, before she ends up in a relationship with the revolutionary chess-playing protester Zeffirelli. Krementz ends up first editing Zeffirelli’s manifesto, then rewriting it and adding an appendix. In the end. Zeffirelli leaves the revolution and goes in pursuit of love with a fellow student.
Finally, there’s Roebuck Wright, the black gay food/social critic who is profiling a chef who cooks exclusively for the police. As the police chief’s son is kidnapped by a group of criminals and showgirls, Wright is drawn into the ensuing shoot-outs and car chases, finding his angle when the kid is saved following a catering incident.
Anderson throws everything against the wall, and some of it sticks. The screen ratio changes regularly for no apparent reason, we switch between black and white and colour, and at one stage go into a full cartoon (judged on the plot alone, pretty much all the film is a cartoon, which has only a passing relationship with the world as we really experience it).
Similarly, although the general plot is fairly superficial, at the same time it often contains way too much Stuff. The cast list is astounding, but most of the famous actors play characters who only appear for a couple of seconds and are the opposite of fully rounded. What sort of director makes a film with Henry Winkler in, say, or Elizabeth Moss, and gives them only a couple of lines?
On top of this, there are too many framing devices – from the art critic who narrates the first story without any real sense of irony, to the talk show on which Wright tells his tale. This may be making an Important Artistic Statement but its all too much. By the time we’d reached the third story, I was so overwhelmed that I’d really stopped caring who was doing what to whom and why.
Some reviews have banged on at length about all the deep and profound subjects that The French Dispatch is trying to address, but is it really? Is it about anything at all? And does this matter? I think it does matter in the second story (about 1968), say, where given the chance to say something about real historic events, Anderson takes one look and runs away into whimsy. At other times, it’s fine to just sit back and enjoy the chaos.
More generally, The French Dispatch is at its best when its telling jokes (and there are some good sight gags) and not being silly for the sake of it or trying to be profound (this is not a profound film, nor should it have to be). The film is too light on substance to be able to take itself as seriously is it does, and without this substance, the quirkiness for its own sake can just get irritating.
Wes Anderson is a bit of a serial offender in cases like this of trying too hard. My favourite film of his (also not remotely profound) is The Life Aquatic With Steve Zizou. What that film managed, that is slightly missing here, was its ability to break the intensity from time to time – usually by Seu Jorge singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.
Having said that, if you take The French Dispatch for what it is – an insubstantial, silly, piece of fluff – there is plenty to enjoy. At the beginning I said that some friends have loved the film, others have hated it. You know what? They’ve all got a point.