David Cuevas takes a look at ‘The French Dispatch′, as part of FilmHounds’ ongoing London Film Festival coverage.
Editor’s Note: The following review was originally published in print form, as part of FilmHounds’ August/September 2021 Issue.
It has been exactly 25 years since Wes Anderson first introduced the world to his signature stylistic ploys in feature form. Bottle Rocket, a financial flop turned revered cult classic was Anderson’s first exposure to the festival circuit; where he would later be given extensive creative control to fuel his whimsical liberation. Nine feature films later including two Oscar-nominated animated stop-motion features and a boastful fanbase of dedicated cinephiles from around the globe, Anderson has returned once again with his hotly anticipated 10th feature film ‘The French Dispatch’. Now in the double digits of his feature filmography, it only seems appropriate enough for Anderson to dabble with the experimental; and what better way to showcase his illustrious visual talents by creating a feature in an anthology format. In many regards, his latest venture into the Parisian hellscape showcases both the director’s worst and best attributes as a visual storyteller; a Jacques Tati inspired thrill ride of labyrinthine short-story driven proportions.
Far and away, The French Dispatch’s most exhilarating chapter is ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’; a boastful satire detailing the exploitative regime of the contemporary art market and how monetisation and privatisation of property can lead to disastrous, albeit humorous results. Backed by three extraordinary comedically-timed performances from Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, and Adrien Brody; ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ is an aptly titled footnote in Anderson’s growing career of major artistic risks. Dare I say, the chapter may just be one of his most profound and entertaining filmmaking efforts to date.
As for the remaining two chapters, I’m afraid they don’t necessarily live up to the title of some of Anderson’s more compelling works. Still lovingly crafted in all of their eccentric and perfectly symmetrical beauty, both ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ and ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ both suffer from overstuffed narrative threads and a lack of a concise focus. For ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’, the Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand performance vehicle can be best described as Wes Anderson’s La Chinoise (1967), a slightly obnoxious parody of heightened revolution and French New Wave Cinema; all set in a commune self-contained with rambunctious youngsters. Police brutality, coitus, and love triangles ensue; in a chapter that frequently alienates its viewer in all of its entertaining self-aware madness.
In ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’, escalation and violence is the gateway for the central narrative storytelling. A simple kidnapping fable turned fabulously convoluted by its overstuffed cast of quirky characters, Anderson’s mesh of symmetry and bombastic action set-pieces stimulate a diverting cinematic experience. There’s nothing particularly nuanced being said in this specific chapter, but at the very least there’s a bit of fun to be had; especially with the inclusion of a beautifully crafted 2D animated sequence.
All things considered, The French Dispatch may just be Anderson’s worst since Bottle Rocket. Keep in mind, this comment isn’t necessarily a negative detractor, since most of Anderson’s poignant filmography very rarely misses the mark. As a test-run in playing with the confinements of anthology storytelling, it seems as though Anderson deliberately wanted to take a few too many artistic risks with The French Dispatch. The film is the perfect summation of his stylistic lore; a work of eye candy and occasional depth that will either stray or allure its susceptible viewer.