The French Dispatch
- Emma Simmonds
- 6 October 2021
LFF 2021: Wes Anderson delivers a delightful, typically star-studded anthology film
The latest decadent, absurdist confection from ever-fastidious filmmaker Wes Anderson has too many marvellous moments to count. They are scattered through a collection of stories, which act as tributes to journalistic endeavour and to artistic indulgence itself. It boasts a characteristically showy cast, featuring Elisabeth Moss, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and many, many more.
Anjelica Huston, our narrator, introduces us to the titular magazine, run by Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) from the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Howitzer is an eccentric editor who allows his writers to go wildly off topic and well over the requested wordcount and can be a kindly mentor ('Just try and make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,' is a typical piece of advice), but he is intolerant of his administrative staff and has a sign that reads 'No Crying' on his office wall.
With Howitzer passing away at the outset, the film brings to life the publication's final issue through four of its stories: a travelogue introduction from the magazine's cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson); 'The Concrete Masterpiece', a tale of a criminally insane painter (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard muse (Léa Seydoux) reimagined as a lecture from art correspondent JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton); 'Revisions to a Manifesto', written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who documents a student revolt involving a young man she takes as a lover (Timothée Chalamet); and, finally, 'The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner', which sees a food critic (Jeffrey Wright) get a front row seat during a kidnapping and siege.
Although visual impact is par for the course with Anderson, this might be his most superbly realised film yet, with the quartet of scenarios allowing him to innovate across a broad spectrum. However, the usual problems with portmanteau films do arise; it's not as immersive as watching one single story, so it's harder to get lost in it, and some vignettes are simply more interesting than others – 'The Concrete Masterpiece' being a particular highlight.
Little notes of emotion and poignancy are to be found in amongst the industrial strength whimsy. The longer stories play out in crisp monochrome, with moments of rapture, artistic brilliance and culinary excellence rendered in vivid colour. The cast, many of whom have worked with Anderson before, and often, know exactly what they are doing and they deliver the deadpan comedy with aplomb – the standout being a superb, velvety-voiced Wright, who brings gravitas and pathos to proceedings. Those hoping for the giddy heights of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a tad disappointed, but the attention to detail is divine.
Screening on Sunday 10, Monday 11, Wednesday 13 and Sunday 17 October as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. In cinemas from Friday 22 October.