Ultra Vires


Ryan’s Movie Corner

The French Dispatch is a thoroughly entertaining homage to journalism

As we settle into the winter months, I often find it easy to fret about the shorter days, colder weather, and the inexorable approach of exam season. The one silver lining, amongst these other, less than desirable developments, is the release of the year’s biggest films. Countless films that were originally slated for a winter 2020 release are now being belatedly released in winter 2021, making for a season that is sure to have a disproportionate amount of hits.

One of my favourites from among these delayed films is Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. To those acquainted with Anderson’s work, The French Dispatch will seem incredibly familiar. This familiarity, however, co-exists with an astonishing sense of inventiveness and novelty. The film takes the director’s signature style to an impressive new height of visual achievement—it is a must watch for anyone that appreciates creativity in filmmaking.

The film tells the story of the French foreign bureau of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, an English-language magazine based in France in the mid-twentieth century, helmed by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The magazine is quite explicitly based on The New Yorker, and the film depicts this homage perfectly: the French Dispatch employs a cartoonist who draws up quirky covers for a magazine filled with equally quirky cultural commentary.

The film’s action plays out through the depiction of three distinct stories published by the magazine. These vignettes portray, among other things, an artistically gifted convict (Benicio Del Toro), a headstrong leader of a revolutionary student movement (Timothée Chalamet), and a talented chef dedicated to the art of “police cooking” (Steve Park). 

Though some might balk at the idea of a feature film that is structured more like a collection of short stories, this narrative structure allows Anderson to engage in audiovisual storytelling that feels thoroughly unique. Each of the three stories proceeds via the narration of their respective authors, portrayed by Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright. This allows for an engaging form of storytelling wherein characters are at once narrators and participants in the stories they tell. This narrative structure is combined with an incredibly inventive visual style that kept me engaged through the entire runtime. As the film goes from story to story, it also goes from black-and-white to colour, and from live-action to animated. These stylistic choices are used with great effect to convey a surprisingly rich array of emotions, especially given the brevity of each vignette.

Much like all of Anderson’s films, a central concern of The French Dispatch is the construction of a coherent aesthetic for its visual world. What makes The French Dispatch so impressive is its ability to achieve this cohesion, while simultaneously showing viewers the diversity of this world across the film’s relatively unrelated subplots. Though each vignette has its own cast of characters and its own message, these vignettes share a visual grammar that makes the film, in its entirety, something greater than the sum of its parts. Though the film is quintessentially Wes Anderson, this doesn’t mean that The French Dispatch is a mere restatement of his earlier works. The film is an experimental, though thoroughly entertaining, homage to journalism and the stories that journalists tell.


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