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Wes Anderson is undoubtedly the king of the kitsch quirk, a top-notch author in the field of highly professional and fastidious filmmaking. At the moment, there is no doubt that Anderson is not deluded by his signature style, his films are occupied with small dioramas, filled to the brim with references and text, and favorite characters-actors, so much that the eye can barely catch it all. However, his latest cinematic rarity, The French Dispatch, demonstrates that sometimes too much of a good thing can seem like a pretentious bore.
The French Dispatch could easily have been a parody of a Wes Anderson film because it is too Andersonian in itself. It features many of his usual performers: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Lea Seydoux and Wally Volodarsky, as well as some new friends: Timothy and Chalamet. Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss and Jeffrey Wright. The frying pans are side, the slopes are vertical, the compositions themselves are packed and overflowing with visual information that requires so much work to distinguish every detail that, perhaps, the eyes and brain will simply reject the task.
It doesn’t help that the film, which consists of a series of episodic vignettes, each of which is a magazine article, does not offer an emotional cut-through in the form of the protagonist. On a macro level, “The French Dispatch” is a tribute to New Yorker magazine, whose title refers to a fictional publication, an insert from Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun, the favorite project of the publisher’s son, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The headquarters are located in the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blazet (yes, it really is). A vibrant line-up of journalists, critics and correspondents makes up the mast of the French Dispatch.
Each chapter follows a different passage: Wilson, as a cyclist-journalist, offers the local flavor of Boredom; Swinton is an art critic giving a long lecture on a prisoner-turned-artist (Del Toro) who becomes the toast of modern Abstract Expressionism through his lover and model (Seydoux); and a prisoner agent (Brody). McDormand is a political reporter who writes about a student-led (Chalamet) protest movement that gives Anderson a chance to play in the Parisian land of pop fantasy, which draws on New Wage and Jean-Luc Godard’s early films. In the final chapter, the culinary critic (Wright) talks on a talk show about a kidnapping conspiracy he finds himself in, with a stylistic flair similar to a French WWII spy thriller inspired by Jean Renoir and an animated car chase. …
It’s hard to criticize a film and a director who seem to have pure intentions to create a charming love letter to the golden era of the (lavishly funded) print media. But the tics and habits that make up Anderson’s often imitated but never duplicated aesthetics reached the point where the French Mailing List began to actively work against him. If he’s trying to say something (and it’s not clear what it might be), all the fuss and confusion hides any message and, worse, any emotional connection to the film. This latest newsletter is indeed deeply disappointing.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.
Rating: R: nudity, some mentions of sexual nature and expressions.
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
Plays: Starts October 15th Limited Edition