Wes Anderson has a style so distinct you only need to see a single frame from one of his films to recognize it as his work. He deals in artifice as much as in storytelling. His new film, The French Dispatch, is an anthology and maximizes the artifice. It is also a delightful and funny ode to writers, particularly those that could write for something like The New Yorker.
Anderson loves sad-sacks and this film is no different. With its stacked cast of returning actors, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, and some new faces, Benicio Del Toro, Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Lea Seydoux, the film is full of them. And yet, it is never a dull or morose affair. This is a loving tribute to the lonely but exuberant existence of creative writers who document life. The film follows the final issue of a magazine whose editor-in-chief (Murray) has just died. We get three fantastical tales of the main stories featured within its pages.
The French Dispatch is full of layers. There is the overall framing story about the magazine creator and his team of writers. Each installment then has a framing device of its own and then the narrative of the story. This is complicated by multiple points of view at times. It sounds complicated but each story moves quickly and is full of wit and humor so none of it feels like a drag. In fact, The French Dispatch is often breathtaking in its skill and aim to please. This is a frothy film that can read as minor Anderson but the film slyly culminates all of the director's skills into one dazzling creation. Animation mixes seamlessly with his ornate set design, costuming, blocking and camera movement. He seems to pull aesthetically from new sources here including Jacques Tati and the French New Wave directors.
While it may be hard to pick a favorite tale in this anthology, my pick is going to the third and final installment. Jeffery Wright plays Roebuck Wright, who recounts the story of a skilled police chef that involves a kidnapping and subsequent chase. The character feels modeled after James Baldwin, who is thanked in the credits. In this sequence, Anderson delivers thrills, laughs, and one of his most poignant moments. It summarizes everything that makes Anderson one of our best working directors. Kudos to Wright who brings the character to life that transcends the artifice around him.
In the end, The French Dispatch is one of the best times I have had at the movies this year. It works wonderfully as a comedy but the film is built on sad loners who express themselves via the printed word. It is clear that writers mean a lot to the director and this is a lovely tribute to an artform.