The French Dispatch

This latest effort from indie darling Wes Anderson is full of his signatures. If you like his signatures this movie will be a dream come true. If you don’t like him it will be disjointed, off putting, and boring. Sadly I fall into the second camp.

Wes Anderson is an acclaimed independent filmmaker with hits like The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. He is most well known for his kitschy sense of style and the intricate details of his production design. This design and attention to detail is on full display in the French Dispatch. The film follows a fictional monthly news publication run by an eccentric editor and an even more eccentric staff of writers. The movie is broken up into stories written by the staff the cover an artist in prison, a student uprising in Paris, and a kidnapping of police commissioner’s son. Each segment is full of Anderson’s unique costumes and set design and is technically very impressive.

He does have a mastery of style. He shoots characters and action at 90 degree angles. He moves his camera on an axis that creates a distinct style in every moment. There’s no mistaking the film for anyone else’s work. It is fun to see a director’s vision expressed in such a unique way. I respect his attention to detail and his one of a kind aesthetic.

There are moments of technical brilliance here as when the walls open up in a cafe to reveal the world beyond the characters. When the black and white artist in prison segment flashes to full bright color to encompass the power of the artist’s work. And when the chase sequence at the end of the kidnapping story is told in animation. These are delightful flights of technical fancy that are a lot of fun to see.

I have two problems with the movie. One is a problem with Wes Anderson the filmmaker and one is a problem with this movie specifically. The first is the way Anderson handles emotion. He feels like an alien who doesn’t understand the way people feel. His characters state their emotions with robotic, matter of factness that feels detached and off putting. I never believe in his characters. They become collections of ticks and ideas stating feelings as if they were reading an instruction manual. It is very unnatural. I understand that it fits in with the verisimilitude of the films, but it keeps me at a distance. It prevents me from fully engaging with the narratives. I can never invest in the stories because I feel I am being held at arms length.

The problem with this movie specifically is that only one of the three major stories works. The artist in prison is a wonderful little piece of oddity and eccentricity. It follows Benicio del Toro as a tortured artist who murdered two men in a fit of pique. He finds his artistic voice in prison in the form of a muse. The female prison guard who is willing to pose nude form him. She is played by the alluring and wonderful Lea Seydoux. This story has humor and heart and a strong forward momentum. The other narratives don’t. The other two stories just fall flat due to muddled conflict and confusing thematics that never fully come together. He’s one for three in this movie, and that’s not enough for me.

Like I said, if you love his work, you’ll love this. If you are skeptical of his films, just skip it. This one will not convert any Wes Anderson detractors to his side. It’s a great Anderson film, but not a great film. Not my cup of tea. B-

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