“If I read the word ‘whimsical’ describing a Wes Anderson flick one more time…”
So said my husband when he and I combed through movie reviews after seeing The French Dispatch, trying to make sense of the exhausting ordeal we’d just endured.
I know what to expect from Wes Anderson, a director my friend Hannah likes to say is “drunk on his own aesthetic.” But The French Dispatch has such a high concentration of Wes Anderson per Wes Anderson that it should be considered legally toxic in the state of California. It’s an assault to the senses, halfway through which I started zoning out, unable to take in more pastels or perspective shots or punchy, ironic dialogue.
Yet the movie’s reception has been largely positive. I could find only two negative critical reviews, one of which was from the trashy-yet-oddly-astute New York Post. But I’m not embarrassed for my review to be in such company.
Spoiler warning: nothing in this film is interesting enough or surprising enough to warrant a spoiler warning.
The movie examines the final issue of a fictional mid-twentieth-century French newspaper insert called The French Dispatch. It’s meant to be a tribute to the New Yorker, a highbrow magazine published with such unrelenting frequency that The Good Place had a running joke about hell simply being a New Yorker subscription that piles up, shamefully unread, for eternity.
As usual, Anderson presents an enormous ensemble of familiar faces (an “A-list orgy,” as the Post says). The magazine’s editor-in-chief is Bill Murray (of course), who dies at the film’s outset (of course) but is seen in flashbacks insulting his employees eccentrically (of course). Viewers are presented with an anthology of the magazine’s final issue: Murray’s obituary, a travel guide (featuring Owen Wilson biking quaintly through town), and then three episodes which make up the bulk of the film.
In these episodes, the journalists who wrote the articles describe to the audience how they worked on them—distancing viewers from the narrative by far too many layers. It’s a movie about storytellers telling the story of how they got the story.
The first tale, about an imprisoned artist (Benicio del Toro) whose portraits of his guard (Léa Seydoux) catch the eye of an erratic investor (Adrien Brody), was actually enjoyable. But just in time for me to care about the characters, a second story began. This one featured Timothée Chalamet as a young revolutionary leading his classmates into a rebellion, but they are fighting not imperialism but a ban from the girls’ dormitory. At this detail, I immediately stopped caring about Chalamet’s no-stakes arc. He does have sex with Frances McDormand, which is…cool, I guess?
In the final segment, Jeffrey Wright, the film’s best character, recounts the film’s worst story about a chef saving the kidnapped son of a police commissioner. Amidst its barrage of surprisingly dull police chases, I recall Edward Norton wearing a cool uniform and Willem Dafoe scowling Dafoe-ishly from a cage.
Even more actors waste their time starring in this movie. Emmy-winning actress Elizabeth Moss gives an austere head-turn in the movie’s trailer, which is her only notable moment in this film. Christoph Waltz comes to the revolutionary’s house for dinner and gives two unimportant lines. Henry Winkler’s sole purpose seems to be for viewers to go, “Hey, that’s Henry Winkler!” This “Greatest Hits” casting feels like a gimmick to make up for the woefully underdeveloped characters.
The French Dispatch features more than two women, thus satisfying one of my main complaints with Wes Anderson films. But in his typical fashion, the women’s storylines are entirely subservient to those of the men with whom they’re entangled. Tilda Swinton monologues about her affair with the mad artist, Frances McDormand helps the young rebel revise his manifesto and go for another girl. James Bond’s girlfriend poses (pointlessly) nude for Del Toro’s (abstract) painting. Saoirse Ronan comforts the kidnapped boy for half a minute before getting poisoned.
Beyond its weak female characters, the film’s hints at murder and sexual violence and the causes of real revolutionaries are all skimmed over in favor of wink-wink euphemisms and revisionist cuteness.
I suppose I’m revealing my unculturedness by admitting my dislike for this movie. Most critic reviews are positive, but then again, these are journalists enjoying a movie about journalism. But shouldn’t a movie have something to be enjoyed even by those who aren’t aficionados of its extremely niche subject? My favorite Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is an homage to an Austrian writer I’ve never heard of. But one doesn’t need to know that in order to enjoy the delights of the film. Reviews of The French Dispatch have to explain half a century’s worth of journalism and art criticism to contextualize it, and none of that information makes it more palatable.
Perhaps if any of the film’s characters felt real—if any of the stories seemed to matter at all—I might care about it. But the scenarios are as suffocatingly contrived as the subject matter is insufferably obscure. As the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in a refreshingly brutal review, “[The French Dispatch] exists in a pristine artistic universe, crystalline and dead, admitting no fresh air and no light that isn’t artificial. There’s no emotion here that’s not a comment on an emotion or an attitude about an emotion. There’s no direct access to anything that feels living or that has any connection with life.”
This, I think, is the crux of why this film falls short. The French Dispatch is an overwhelming collage of visual and narrative clutter, with so many characters doing so many things but with so little purpose. Wes Anderson’s manufactured quirkiness and self-indulgent aesthetic have made for some genuinely good films, but The French Dispatch is trapped by its own artificiality. You’re better off watching his other works, like the film with Bill Murray or Tilda Swinton or Owen Wilson. You know—the whimsical one.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.