I’ve mentioned before that the films of Wes Anderson are fairly hit and miss for me. He is no doubt a great writer and spectacular visual artist, creating brilliantly whimsical set pieces that feel like living in a painting at times. But how that fanciful approach hits you is essentially a crap shoot. For me, I absolutely love The Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Isle of Dogs. On the flipside, films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic are nearly torturous for me. I get the quirky nature and the visual style, but sometimes it just falls completely flat, and there’s really no way to predict it.
His latest venture, The French Dispatch, is a perfect example. Anderson branching out to try an anthology film? Awesome! A tribute to writers and journalists, including the likes of James Baldwin? I’m in. An homage to New Yorker founder Harold Ross via Bill Murray? You couldn’t keep me away. The concept reminded me of one of my favorite novels, “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman, which is about the trials and tribulations of journalists at a fading English-language newspaper headquartered overseas.
All the ingredients are there for another rousing Anderson entry, one that would likely get only token attention from the Academy, but one that his fans – and fans of artistic movies in general – would lap up. Instead, I was amazed at how utterly bored I was throughout most of the proceedings. The film is still just as wondrous and visually striking as his other work, and it’s clear his usual stable of actors is having a ton of fun with the material. But Anderson’s strongest skill – his writing – feels like it’s coming up short here, necessitating a massive overcorrection through zealous narration in each segment, well past the saturation point. It’s still a movie worth seeing, but it does register as a disappointment.
After an introduction to the late Arthur Horowitz (Murray, giving a nomination-worthy performance in his relatively short screen time), the founder of the French Dispatch magazine who has recently died, the film divides itself into four distinct segments, narrated by the staff writer submitting the article (the underlying conceit being that Horowitz would never cut out a story if he felt it even remotely worthwhile). One of these segments works to absolute perfection. The other three? Not so much.
The greatest vignette is the first, “The Cycling Reporter,” written/presented by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson, not even remotely the weirdest character name in this cast). Over the course of just a few minutes, Sazerac takes a bike tour of the small French town of Ennui, where the magazine is headquartered, highlighting the high and low points, showing off architecture (i.e. set pieces reminiscent of Grand Budapest Hotel), and featuring a fun amount of physical comedy. After the segment is complete, Sazerac gets feedback from Horowitz, who recommends a rewrite because his description of the town seems kind of dour.
This is brilliant. It’s well-paced, funny, and mercifully short (as we’ll soon learn). Also, the commentary at the end is a perfect meta wink to those in the audience who are well-read enough to realize that a slightly morose approach is apropos in the extreme for a town so obviously named “Ennui.” Much of Wilson’s scenes are framed in the center, allowing the environment to move around him more than him moving around it. It’s an expert redux of Anderson’s style, and a great way to ease potentially skittish viewers into the film.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, wears out its welcome quickly. The remaining three segments – dubbed “The Concrete Masterpiece,” “Revisions to a Manifesto,” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” respectively – all suffer from the same two major problems, namely an intolerably long run time and an overabundance of narration.
The length of each story doesn’t have to correspond to the first one, which the opening credits even notes is shorter than the rest, but to contrast a three-minute vignette with three half-hour short films is jarring, because we in the audience are waiting for the crucial plot turn or punch line to wrap things up, and it feels like it’s never going to come, as the narrating writer goes off on yet another tangent that barely relates to anything going on.
As to the narration itself, it firstly gets presented through really odd framing devices. Tilda Swinton tells the “Concrete” story at what appears to be an art lecture/auction, where she stands at a podium on stage presenting a slideshow that constantly cuts to the actual story. In “Manifesto,” Frances McDormand sits at a typewriter, regularly breaking the fourth wall when she’s not actively participating in the story itself. For “Dining Room,” Jeffrey Wright is being interviewed on a talk show by Liev Schreiber, who prompts the writer to recite a piece that Schreiber happened to enjoy.
What is the point of all these, except for self-important ego trips for these writers? You don’t need Tilda Swinton on a stage if she’s just going to narrate for 30 minutes. Same goes for Wright. It’s completely superfluous staging, not to mention a tragic misuse of Schreiber in an unnamed role. Just show the story and have them serve as omniscient narrators, or insert them into the proceedings like McDormand, though in fairness, Wright does both.
The stories themselves have a degree of interest. In “Concrete,” Benicio del Toro plays an artist in a mental institution who creates abstract, violent portraits of a guard named Simone (you will NEVER see me complain about Léa Seydoux posing nude), and attracting the attention of an enthusiastic and opportunistic art buyer in the form of Adrien Brody. In “Manifesto,” McDormand’s character is writing an article on a socialist youth protest led by Timothée Chalamet, offering editorial notes on his group’s literal manifesto and having an affair with him. Finally, for “Dining Room,” an intended assignment for the cooking section of the magazine turns into a kidnapping observed by Wright where the abductee (Winston Ait Hellal) is the son of the police commissioner (Mathieu Almaric), and the criminals (among them Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan, and Willem Dafoe) are defeated by the skills of the commissioner’s private chef, played by Stephen Park.
All of these bits have their moments, usually in the form of a great visual joke or a sly line of dialogue. And the cast is certainly game for just about anything Anderson asks of them, from the mundane to the absurd. But the problem is that with every passing minute, each segment disappears further up its own asshole with pretentiousness (major case in point, an animated segment in “Dining Room” depicting the police chasing the kidnappers that literally ends in the exact same spot as it began, wasting everyone’s time). Anderson changes the aspect ratio of scenes basically on a whim, with none of the rhyme or reason he had during Grand Budapest Hotel. Along the same lines, the shots change from color to black-and-white with almost no sense of consistency.
But more than anything else, the narration is plodding and overbearing. For the most part, I prefer it when films keep narration to a minimum, with rare feats like The Shawshank Redemption being the exception that proves the rule. Show, don’t tell. This film takes that mandate, crumples it up, tosses it into the nearest bin, and then pisses all over it just for good measure. There’s not a single scene in any of these vignettes – even the good one – where every bit of action or focal point isn’t spelled out in painfully obvious fashion, using prose so purple it might as well be hanging out with Ronald McDonald, broken up by pauses so pregnant they’d do well to steer clear of Texas.
When you’re reading a magazine, this sort of thing is perfectly fine. In fact it likely enhances the experience, as a writer like James Baldwin can paint the most beautiful picture with words, transporting you into the scene so that you can almost live it through his eyes. It’s also worth noting that when you read a particularly verbose piece, you can always find a good place to stop for a while and come back to it if you don’t want to power through to the end. Hell, I know I can certainly go on at length about things in this very blog, but there’s no rule saying you have to read all my shit in one go. Take in a few paragraphs, then walk the dog, make a sandwich, take a shit, watch some porn. Trust me, I’m not offended. Then when you feel like it, come back and keep going. If anything, you’ll be helping me by giving the site extra clicks to up my engagement stats.
But when you’re watching a movie, you’re basically a captive audience. Sure you can go to the bathroom or grab a snack, and you’re free to just walk out, but the story goes on without you. You miss something crucial, or you lose context. So you’re locked in, no matter how boring it might get. It’s like going to a reading at a library, except instead of a quick children’s book or an excerpt chosen by the author, you’re forced to sit there and listen to someone read an entire newspaper to you. The writer may find it fascinating, but you’re sitting in the chair silently begging them to get to the fucking point.
Had these bits been shorter, and honestly had there been more of them, with more varied framing conceits, this probably would have worked out much better. The opening obituary for Horowitz and Sazerac’s two-wheel tour of Ennui set just the right tone, with fun, short performances that tease Anderson’s genius. But from then on it’s a slog, filled with good (if unfocused) elements, but ultimately exhausting. Throughout the film, whenever we cut back to the actual printing office of the French Dispatch, we learn that Horowitz was a good boss, giving his writers tons of leeway and freedom to make their voice come through on the page. But at the same time, that made him a lousy editor, because he wasn’t willing to cut out the unnecessary fluff, and he refused to assert his authority for the sake of efficiency. And in the end, that’s what The French Dispatch desperately needed, an editor, more importantly, one willing to make the tough decisions for the sake of good story flow.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Where does this rank on your personal Wes Anderson list? Does my lengthy writing annoy you? Let me know!