Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, to be sure. While plenty of folks love him and worship at the alter of Anderson, I confess to running hot and mostly cold on him. Frankly, it’s really only been his animated offerings that have fully worked for me. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs seemed to capture his personality and style in a way that made more sense than his live action outings. So, it’s probably no surprise that I’m fairly lukewarm on The French Dispatch, his latest movie. Playing at the 59th New York Film Festival after a mostly successful debut at the Cannes Film Festival, it will undoubtedly please his fans. Anyone else? Well, that remains to be seen, but the flick left me very cold.
The French Dispatch sees Anderson putting forth a love letter to journalists and the written word. I’m all for that, and truly, there are some sporadically delightful moments here. Unfortunately, it’s all done with his trademark quirky and twee style, which just bounces right off of me. There’s a bit more variety here than usual, but before too long, it reverts back to the sort of thing he’s been riffing on for decades now.
Taking place, at least to start, in a fictional twentieth century French town that houses “The French Dispatch Magazine,” a wing of an American newspaper. There, a number of expats pen long and dense missives to be sent back to the homeland. Under the watchful eye of editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), journalists like Alumna (Elisabeth Moss), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), just to name a few, give artful life to stories of European life. This occasion is the preparation of what will be their final issue.
Within the film are several of their stories told as vignettes. One is Berensen’s tale of incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), his guard lover Simone (Léa Seydoux), and the art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who sees genius in his madness. Another concerns student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who Lucinda gets involved with. Then, there’s Wright’s missive, involving a fancy dinner with a police chief (Mathieu Amalric), as well as a kidnapping. Of course, we return to The French Dispatch, as a very specific situation is bringing the publication to its end.
The cast is uniformly strong, even if no one really gets a chance to shine. There isn’t a standout to me, but all are completely buying into Anderson’s style. In addition to the A-list mentioned above, on hand are the likes of Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, Griffin Dunne, Anjelica Huston, Edward Norton, Stephen Park, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber, Jason Schwartzman, Lois Smith, Fisher Stevens, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler, and more.
Wes Anderson almost goes overboard with style here. Truly, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman must have delighted in the various sets, looks, and elements on display. As always, Alexandre Desplat pairs well with the filmmaker, too. Unfortunately, the pacing here is all off. The segments are too long, but also too short to invest you in the characters. They’re all curiosities, without much purpose. That doesn’t necessarily fall completely on Anderson the director, but Anderson the writer, along with co-writers Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman, certainly are more to blame.
Awards-wise, The French Dispatch is an X factor. I’m fairly skeptical of a Best Picture or Best Director nomination for Anderson (though he may fare better in his Screenplay category), as well as any acting citations right now, but the precursors could change the equation. Below the line is where this could shine, and it would be hard to argue against any nods in Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, or Best Original Score. It just depends on if the Academy is in an Anderson mood again or not.
The French Dispatch is further evidence that Wes Anderson’s powers remain ineffective on me. The film is almost impeccably made and well acted, but I felt almost nothing. It’s as if he keeps me 100 yards away at all times. I know I’m in the minority, but it did very little for me. Here at NYFF, your mileage may vary, but yours truly? Didn’t care for it.