The Screen Scene: The French Dispatch

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Writer-director Wes Anderson is often written off as being style over substance. Some film lovers find his work to be charming, but ultimately empty. Don’t let the fastidious attention to set design, costumes and color schemes fool you. There’s a lot of sub-text in Anderson’s films. You can’t watch Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Grand Budapest Hotel without feeling the undercurrents of melancholy and sadness tucked underneath the whimsy.

Unlike previous Wes Anderson features, his new film, The French Dispatch, is an anthology of sorts. Set at a fictional magazine located in Ennui, France, the film is a series of vignettes told from the points of view of individual writers for the magazine. Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright narrate their respective segments that chronicle the most interesting stories their characters have written for magazine. A brief plotline starring Bill Murray as the executive editor of the magazine is woven through the three centerpieces.

It’s stating the obvious to point out that an anthology film is only as strong as its individual stories. However, that’s why The French Dispatch is 2/3 of a great movie with a long slog in its middle. The opening segment starring Benecio Del Toro as a tormented artist in prison for murder is the finest of the three and features the best performance by Del Toro since Sicario. This vignette is a perfect distillation of the Wes Anderson approach to filmmaking, and it works like gangbusters.

The middle segment about student revolutionaries in Paris in the late 1960’s is a total misfire. It’s like tossing an anvil in the basket of a hot air balloon. The bottom falls out of the film, and the soaring heights reached by the first segment are quickly lost to this bland exercise. Timothee Chalamet and Frances McDormand are dry and emotionless (which is likely the effect the filmmaker is trying to achieve), but Wes Anderson films require a very specific tone from its cast, and these two performances miss the mark.

In the third and final installment, Jeffrey Wright’s roving reporter relates a tale of a kidnapping, organized crime and a chef with a special set of skills. The story is a ludicrous romp anchored by Wright’s pitch-perfect earnestness. The film manages to regain a great deal of its lost momentum, but it never attains the heights achieved by the first installment.

I’ve always been a fan of Anderson’s detailed sets and intricate production design. The French Dispatch is a visual marvel. Audiences who were enthralled with the CGI grandeur of Dune should be equally dazzled by the practical in-camera beauty of Anderson’s film. Each set feels like an art installation that should be on display in galleries around the world. The film is so jam-packed with extraordinary visual flourishes that I constantly felt the need to hit rewind.

Most movie-goers are driven by story first. That segment of the audience will likely be disappointed by The French Dispatch. It’s the “thinnest” of Anderson’s films when it comes to plot. However, it may also be the richest of Anderson’s films when it comes to visual sophistication, and that’s saying a lot given his filmography.

If you have been in the “style over substance” camp when it comes to Anderson’s past films, The French Dispatch will become your “smoking gun” for any future debate over his value as a filmmaker. If, like me, you love seeing an original voice given the opportunity to let his freak flag fly, you’ll find a great deal to enjoy in this film. Is it top-tier Wes Anderson? No. But, middle-tier Wes Anderson is still better than most films.

The French Dispatch opens in select theaters on October 29th.

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