Asking Wes Anderson to make something outside of his signature filmmaking style is like asking a squirrel not to store nuts up for the winter. It’s in his nature, so it’s got to happen. Now, I’m not against directors having a signature filmmaking style, in fact, I actually enjoy seeing how some artists can turn their flavorful eye into an actual genre, some of the best examples of that include Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Quentin Tarantino. But the issue is that with each time the filmmaker utilizes his unique style of filming, it can’t just feel like the same thing over and over, it’s got to make a few adjustments to fit the needs of the story he’s trying to tell. You certainly get that sense in The French Dispatch, which feels less like Wes Anderson using his one-of-a-kind imagination to speak his heart, and more like him just showing off what we’ve already seen before… but less good.
This could have been a profound commentary for our era of fake news, but just doesn’t exploit that opportunity, since it would rather dump a bunch of pointless statistics about the city, such as how much rainfall and snowfall it gets. It’s made even harder to care due to the confused tone of the acting, which often changes suddenly between shots in a single scene. At least that’s made up for by Frances McDormand; going off her third Oscar win for Best Actress, she depicts the script’s most complex character- someone who eventually realizes she’s loving the wrong way and thus as a consequence of her foolishness ends up in great jeopardy, which affects the other journalists.
But even then she’s in a smaller percentage of the film, frequently pushed to the side to make more time for the screen splitting into two separate frames with two separate concepts going on simultaneously. This abuse of creative control makes it hard to know where to look and who to focus on, ultimately making both frames a blur. The plot structure of a story within a story within a story makes it even more frustrating to keep track of, especially when it’s left to Tilda Swinton to narrate one of those stories.
Though the worldbuilding is still every bit as quirky and tastefully distasteful as the best that Anderson can offer, mixed with a complete understanding about the culture of focus. In one brief shot, slimy eels are focused on as the food these people of France eat, and in another, cats are seen flooding their rooftops. Sometimes color is used, sometimes, an entire scene is in black-and-white, as if drawn in charcoal or graphite. The color is keenly used for the purpose of showcasing the type of art done by more expensive oil paints, almost like the movie carries a bias toward the higher-class taste over anything drawn in the cheaper graphite and charcoal. To boost the feel of walking through an art exhibit hosted by the rich, Alexandre Desplat (Isle of Dogs, The Shape of Water) conjures up a playful, classy musical score of hummable tunes, like what he often does when doing it for Wes Anderson.
The famed director though sustains his habit of going too far into his make-believe world of no logic, starting with the unbelievable characterizations, and ending with the perplexing use of a fourth wall break that happens exactly once. He could have done more with the plot threads about the characters who fought in the military, but instead wanted to show off his use of black-and-white photography, which doesn’t even look that good with its low contrast. When focused on allowing the image to go full color, he prefers throwing in perfectly composed text, both built into the set and composited on in post-production, to convey exposition. The problem though is the text isn’t on screen long enough to properly read it. So in all his efforts to be quirky and fun with his signature storytelling language, Wes Anderson can’t do it right.
He does have his moments of brilliance though, such as the funny way he stages an airplane so that everything in view is so neatly arranged, which even then isn’t nearly as charming as a fun comic strip style of animation that feels similar to his use of 2D drawings in Isle of Dogs. Plus, there are several shots of people posing still in mid-action of chaotic acts, with stuff floating in midair, while the camera moves horizontally on a dolly; then the cherry on top is the delightful cover artwork in the end credits. So if you were to watch this just for the zany art, you can certainly get that.
Though what good is art if it has nothing to contribute? If it were paint smeared around without any purpose on what it’s depicting, the person looking at the abstract painting would just move on to the next one, and stop to give more attention to a painting of a sad looking girl on the floor. Nothing in this motion picture is designed to grasp your emotions, mostly because absolutely none of these characters are likable. Even if they all look quirky and distinct in appearance, it doesn’t make them memorable, unless you count their acts of thievery and lying just for the sake of telling fascinating stories as memorable.
It would have helped if themes of religion were implemented like what Anderson did with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but instead this clings to immoral values that by now are dated mindsets for modern Hollywood. One female character is introduced by posing naked in front of a male artist, who’s later revealed to be a prisoner, keeping to the tradition of treating women like they’re just sex objects for predatorial men. You’d think Anderson would show a little more social responsibility given our post #MeToo era.
If The French Dispatch could have been taken away from Wes Anderson’s hands during the pre-development process, and instead given to another director who could make it less about stroking his own ego and more about commenting on America’s culture of fake news, then this could have been something more than just retreaded territory.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!