Wes Anderson is one of my greatest filmmaking inspirations. Granted, he’s not the greatest when it comes to intersectional filmmaking (the majority of his biggest feature films revolving around straight white men) and his films for the most part remain intentionally devoid of politics. But all that aside, it cannot be disputed that Anderson is deserving of the title of modern-day auteur.
His films are a beautiful medley between the critic’s dream and the audience’s delight, making both feel distinctly clever but not alienating one or the other. His obsession with symmetry, eclectic colour palettes and formalism create a kind of surrealist film that marries perfectly with the magic realism of his screenplays. Not to mention, he’s one of the few filmmakers that can make me laugh purely with how he frames a shot. As a result, I had very high expectations when going to see The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021) in cinemas yesterday. And whilst most of my expectations were met, at least where an Anderson film is concerned, I did feel in places that it had almost become a pastiche of his earlier work.
The French Dispatch is nothing if not bold. Often, filmmakers will open with an ‘establishing shot’ – which does exactly what it says on the tin; it establishes things like time, setting and location. Think of the ariel view of New York before jumping into any given episode of Gossip Girl (Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, 2007-2012). But in true Anderson fashion, he does not give his audience what they expect. One of the opening establishing shots for the first section of the paper is a very long, unbroken shot of a waiter carrying a tray up several flights of complicated stairs, contraptions and lifts. It takes great confidence as a director to hold a single take (the average Hollywood take being much shorter), without dialogue and just trust that the result will be comic. It is something that Anderson is a master at – a prime example being The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014). From its outset then, The French Dispatch promises to deliver the classic Anderson experience of slightly bonkers humour and stunning visuals.
The colour palettes, when used, are phenomenal as per usual, from sunshine yellows to pastel pink to rich red and orange for enhancing Tilda Swinton (as is proper). The cast is star-studded with Anderson’s usual faces, and it shows: Timothée Chalamet (who somehow has the widest age-playing range I’ve ever seen); Bill Murray; Saoirse Ronan; Frances McDormand; Jeffrey Wright, and James Bond’s Léa Seydoux, to name but a few. Not one single shot is ever done conventionally. Where other filmmakers are taught to use shot-reverse-shot, at one point Anderson chooses to flip the frame upside down every time the other person is speaking. When combined, it melds to create a wonderful, complicated, eclectic chaos that perfectly complements the story he’s telling. It really does give the impression of a collaged, colourful magazine but in film form.
The problem arises in that this is not a ‘one-watch-and-done’ kind of film. Where Anderson’s other most famous titles have included rapid-fire sophisticated dialogue, I have always found them easy to follow in terms of theme and storyline. Short stories are always a challenge to get adequate exposition without overloading the audience, whilst also keeping them entertained – an issue forewarned, I think, by the Coen Brother’s Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)versus True Grit (2010). As a result, the dialogue is lightning fast, fancy and often complex. In one scene, subtitles that sometimes move upwards, sometimes downward, translate French dialogue, whilst English dialogue speaks over the top. Not to mention the screen itself is also split in two. And whilst that was the point of the sequence to see from the point of view of the character, it created a kind of clustered slightly panic-inducing experience that he has thus far managed to avoid. Some stories were more easily digestible and more short and comic snippets may have aided to break up the long sombre ones.
There was also an unmistakable lack of colour. Much of the film is in black and white; I presume to echo what is in the paper versus what is off-book but I’d have to re-watch to be sure. The shame of that was that so much of the film was missing the stunning colour palette that is what draws people to Anderson’s films. And for some of the sections that were in colour, he chose to make them animated in comic-book style. Whilst this was an artistic decision it felt a little like avoiding actually filming a complicated chase scene, undermining some of this section. Equally, where beforehand he has managed to get away with having only minor or supporting female characters, here it was more obvious. Every single female character of note had some kind of sexual relation or was sexualised in some way. They often posed as muses or props to the men and that frustrated me. Saoirse Ronan’s cameo was a somewhat unnecessary hooker. Whilst I could forgive the ‘woman-get-back-to-the-kitchen’ jibes of a thieving fox in Fantastic Mr Fox (Anderson, 2009), this was more obvious to me.
I went to see The French Dispatch really, really wanting to like it. And I did. But, I didn’t love it. Perhaps I will after watching it another five times and coming to grips with what is actually going on but I suspect not. Whilst it contains moments of Wes Anderson mastery, for the most part, it felt like a film that had gone a little too far into the world of ridiculousness and absurdity to be quaint and enjoyable. Perhaps I am judging too harshly, in constant comparison with his other works but that is the unfortunate side effect of having such a distinct and consistent style. It is obvious why he cites his influences as Truffaut, Welles, and Scorsese because his style is something that encapsulates the originality of independent cinema. However, whilst The French Dispatch is a thoroughly enjoyable film in many ways, Anderson needs to take care not to get too clever and become so avant-garde he strays into the realm of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) if he wants to keep his Hollywood-watching audience and extortionate funding, where his influences had very little. It is undoubtedly a fine line to tread but The French Dispatch has just about managed it.