by Paul Deeter
In July I wrote an article ranking Wes Anderson's nine feature films prior to the release of The French Dispatch. I spent time discussing what works in his catalogue of weird and wonderful, and why he's so often referred to as an auteur. There is nobody else, not without lack of trying maybe like Wes Anderson. The fact that the Criterion Collection has honored nearly every film (minus noticeably Isle of Dogs) and overall critic consensus has favored his repertoire is indicative that Anderson has left an unmistakable mark on modern cinema. As I briefly mentioned, the imitation of his work can be seen in the quirkiness of modern indie darlings and also the deadpan actor delivery in mumblecore films. He's practically cornered the market for the reputation of ensemble casts; very few modern actors have yet to be featured in some size in his many mainstream features. Having said that, I do lean on the opinion that Anderson has trouble with the overwhelming success of his films. The ego that comes with being so great and critically adorned as well as award-winning is hard to bear against. Anderson hasn't changed too many a chord in his continuingly bigger productions. Relatable to Max Fischer of Rushmore his sophomore film, despite his youth and newness to the craft he wants to put on bigger and broader productions, throwing an excess of bombastic efforts to prove his name in the scene. The problem that comes with being Wes Anderson perhaps, is living up to the name. Or maybe its changing a tune when the music becomes too familiar. As loved as The Royal Tenenbaums is critically, when The Darjeeling Limited saw a change in setting but followed a similar storyline with already recognizable actors, Anderson was threatening crowds and critics with the possibility that he didn't know too many other notes.
And maybe Anderson gets a kick out of his own ego. In his worst movie: Isle of Dogs, Anderson falls prey to his own sense of gravitas in his idea of a love letter to Japanese cinema. He tries to spin a yarn with a post-apocalyptic fairy tale of dogs being exiled to a foreign island due to a plague caused by them, but uses slightly xenophobic humor and culturally troubling content to tell said story. In a Rolling Stone article titled "How Do You Solve a Problem like Isle of Dogs", David Fear who otherwise loved the film grapples with the issue of appropriation exhibited here:
There are differences between Japanophilia and cinephilia, just as there are differences between paying tribute to a foreign culture and using what you’ve gleaned about a country from watching its movies as some sort of exotic backdrop.
In another solid article (showing some bias) here on Purely Kino, Yesenia Corona dives into the inclusivity issues the director has that led up to the issues of Isle of Dogs. Wes Anderson has had issues with his staggeringly non POC-casts. It's limited his scope in what otherwise could include some incredible actors due to the milquetoast style of his characters. So how does he steer clear of controversy like 2018's Isle while also delivering the need to support a more diverse set of leads? And how does he solve the saminess issue that plagued Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited after hitting nearly pitch perfect notes with his movies prior? It seems to this day Anderson has yet to fear falling under his own shadow, or perhaps he knows time will look fondly on some of his less popular releases. But with The French Dispatch, Anderson delivers a complexly dedicated film to his overtly unique style, while also struggling to break the mold. It's an occasionally confusing clip show of a film, reveling in highbrow humor while also achieving surprising poignancy. To put it short: I was blown away. And befuddled.
The French Dispatch is another movie to suffer from the unavoidable push of Covid-19, delaying its premiere date to October of 2021 after a predicted 2020 launch. It's release was also limited to a small amount of theaters as expected for its independent distribution, but it saw a modest $43 million return on a $25 million budget. It seemed to receive somewhat mixed reviews sitting at an indecisive 75% on Rotten Tomatoes; a very hit or miss rating compared to some of his highest reviewed features. To put it simply, I didn't know what to expect. With the situation of pandemic limited releases and the expected mask mandate in theaters, I was limiting my ability to see new movies outside of some streaming releases, so I only got around to seeing The French Dispatch in 2022, after a very small response from the awards circuit. With a neither hated nor adored response consensus from pretty much everyone, I wasn't particularly excited for The French Dispatch, but my curiosity was high enough to rent it as soon as it dropped digitally.
Similarly to the city in Isle of Dogs and the massive hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Ennui-sur-Blasé in which the movie is set, is entirely fictional. The tendency for Anderson to create settings that are fake but somehow feel familiar is a strength that he shows here in the early sequence of character Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson) as he cycles on bike through the town discussing its history past and present. This is similar to Bob Balaban's role in Moonrise Kingdom as the Narrator, and it works well for setting the scene, albeit feels less necessary than Kingdom. In Moonrise Kingdom, recognizing each part of the island was important to understanding the context of its scenes, but here its just a humorous sequence and excuse for Wilson to fall off his bike in a tracking shot. Wilson, while shortly seen, is always a treat and the early slapstick humor of this scene had me laughing harder than most of the rest of the film. But I did laugh consistently, with some unexpected gags in its Part One prison setting (not unlike the prison in Paddington 2). The growling Rosenthalar (Antonio Banderas) is a hilarious new addition to the Anderson roster (and a noticeably diverse addition). His arc of the "literally tortured" artist prisoner and his love for guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) is at times as poignant and heart-warming while also being as bizarre as anything Anderson has thought up in years. While the film is pieces of stories of the titled Dispatch newspaper, it honors both arts: the dying printing press and the timeless nature of painting. It's hard to pick favorite parts of this film, because there are many, but the scene where Banderas chases an art critic played by Adrien Brody around his own exhibit had me in stitches. And Banderas growling demeanor might even be enough to ruffle Paddington's fur.
The movie is easier to digest when viewed as a sequential film in parts that like a book of short stories, don't always work. The prison storyline which begins the film carries the bulk of the emotional weight of any of the three. But the second film's part with Timothee Chalamet as a student of the revolution in France regarding the school's politics (and something involving chess) features some of the films best jokes and finest deliveries as well. I loved Chalamet here, and am not necessarily a hardcore fan of his new rise to overwhelming popularity. His deadpan line delivery and semi-cool while also nerdy demeanor works very favorably for Anderson's writing, and I'm sure we will see more of him in his future films. And unfortunately, the film peaks in these beginning to halfway highs, with a final story falling into troublesome mediocrity and the lack of a solid climax to complete the three, although an animated sequence helps it stand out stylistically. The film's final act is a testament to the hit or miss nature of the movie, more 50/50 than any of Anderson's previous films for sure.
It's hard to put a finger on Anderson's The French Dispatch, while at times feeling like the funniest and his most personal achievement and others baffling messy. It adds up to me that a lukewarm 75% on Rotten Tomatoes would put this movie into the limbo of undecidable rank compared to his other features. I think his film A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may be the biggest case of a film of his that's aged better with time, and maybe this film will see a similar rise in popularity after its quiet release in a difficult time for film success. What's strange for me is how much I admire Anderson for this one, maybe more than his other films. He plainly let his freak flag fly, using some of the most unusual storytelling he's ever done, while admirably following the set design that's made him so noted and a solidly reliable soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat. Its stylistically bare at times, often in black and white and letterbox despite a 35mm film production. Like I mentioned this is an unusual film, but somehow more confident than the director has seemed since 2012's Moonrise Kingdom. He's having fun telling these stories, and what am I not to enjoy a little ego itching on behalf of one of cinema's greatest auteurs?