Credit: Searchlight Pictures
by Chris Mello Film

Best Films of 2021: The French Dispatch

January 8, 2022

#17. On its surface an ode to disappearing print journalism and the power of a good editor, The French Dispatch finds Wes Anderson using non-cinematic art forms to enrich and energize his cinema after a seven year stretch without a live action feature. The film’s literary aspirations are obvious, but throughout Anderson finds ways to incorporate theater, the comic strip, and even culinary arts into his filmmaking to somehow top the astonishing stylistic ambitions of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The narrative machinations of the anthology are necessarily slighter, but it is anything but minor. Indeed, Dispatch finds Anderson at his most political, expansive, and adventurous: every frame is as meticulous as ever, even as they break new thematic ground. It might not be his best film, but to instead call it the most Wes Anderson movie shouldn’t be a cudgel but a cause for celebration.

Each section — styled like a long piece in a New Yorker–style magazine — is stuffed with activity, constantly changing aspect ratios and color, which keep the pace fleet even as Anderson makes each successive moment denser than the last and continually surprising. The first major portion, in which Benicio Del Toro’s imprisoned artist has a love affair with his prison guard muse (Lea Seydoux) is as erotic as it is hilarious. The final stretch, where a career-best Jeffrey Wright plays a black American expatriate in Paris (okay, he’s playing James Baldwin), combines food criticism with a police caper comedy and dazzles with trips into hand drawn animation. Even the film’s relatively weakest portion, which imagines the student protests of May ’68 as a series of chess matches between Timothée Chalamet and the government — accusations of Anderson burying politics under twee affectation are not totally off base — is filled with touches, like a brief stage play aside, that stick in the mind. Amid all this are some of the best actors of this generation in marginal roles, making the film an obituary not just for print media but also for ensemble comedies filled with movie stars.

The final section’s postscript, in which Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts to Bill Murray’s Arthur Howitzer Jr., his editor, how he cut a private aside he had with Stephen Park’s Nescaffier only for Howitzer to insist upon its inclusion, is among Anderson’s finest moments: It’s both a reflexive nod to the filmmaker’s own complicated role as an artist that expands outward to consider melancholies normally outside his purview and a riposte to years of lazily repeated criticism that the director’s films are “too white.” Like so much in The French Dispatch — the theatrical stagecraft, the extended Hergé style animated sequence — this exchange feels like a new step forward. After 25 years of increasingly ornate stylization, the director refuses to stagnate: each new film adds new formal and thematic wrinkles while remaining immediately recognizable to the layman in a way few artists this century can even dream of achieving.