Film & TV Film Reviews Muse

Review: The French Dispatch

Jenny Glas reviews Wes Anderson's tenth feature film, a highly-stylised "love letter to journalism"

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Image Credit: American Empirical Pictures

On Saturday evening I visited City Screen Picturehouse to catch Wes Anderson’s tenth feature film, The French Dispatch. York’s independent cinema made a suitable home for Anderson’s new, gently-stylised film, an experience that washes over you on a first viewing, but captures wholly what it is to be a working creative invested in literary arts. The city of York’s quaint and vibrant atmosphere completed the viewing, providing a complementary backdrop for the charming escapist movie. I found the film quirky and illuminating, whilst still not quite grasping what was going on.

The recently deceased editor of a fictional newspaper has expressed in his will that The French Dispatch will have three articles republished; from then on we are taken down an adventurous, highly stylised montage that details these stories. Black and white scenes contrast with frames in warm pastel colours to ensure the viewer knows when they are inside the newspaper article and when they are back at the office.

Set in a fictional town in France, most of the movie looks like it’s been crafted by a Parisian painter - that is to say: it is a beautiful looking film. The pretty pictures and dreamy moving portraits are an art lover's ideal screening. If you're looking for a clear-cut storyline or relatable character content, possibly not so much. Luckily, I enjoy a mixed bag.

Cartoonist animation sketches help create an immersive sequence of well-crafted moving images, much like you might find in a good magazine. It is a compilation and mishmash of media that document a writer's “comedic fantasy”. The narrative moves back and forth between flashbacks which can be disorienting but serve to heighten the pull of the visual story portrayal on-screen.

Anderson's film proposes thought-provoking questions, asking what it is to be a writer and how one works, reports, and harnesses their craft whilst retaining a sense of idealism and liveliness which keeps the dream alive. As an audience, we are asked to consider how news is obtained and how it is told or presented to us. Normally we are shocked and sometimes afraid, but the conceptual reinforcement of art within art suggests that there is more to writing than broadcasting information alone or scaring people into submission.

The French Dispatch is thus an innovative and romantic opportunity to see the world through a different lens and contemplate how our news stories can provide a view for others, even more so, a world view. To quote the film directly, it is attempting to appeal to sentimentalists - "we define as a group who are easily under emotionally targeted communication”. Such dialogue, as is the case with the rest of the film, is witty with not a word wasted, heightening the gentle surrealist undertones portrayed within the humorous storytelling.

As The New Yorker notes, Anderson’s film is a “world in which aesthetics and power are inseparable”. This is clearly displayed in the first newspiece named 'The Concrete Masterpiece’ by J.K.L. Berensen, which is reconstructed in a sequence of masterful frames that take us inside a prison where the criminally insane artist, Moses Rosenthaler, is at home making more art. The prison setting suggests the confinement of society in contrast to the freedom that creativity provides, therefore humanizing the tortured artist whilst illustrating the interior walls of a mind who creates and destructs in tandem. This is finalised and brought into full view when the murderer's exhibition is lifted out of prison and into a museum to be preserved for its merit.

The film has a marvelous soundtrack made vintage, including a snippet of Bach’s Fugue No.2 in C minor, a piece I recognised from a piano exam that I did not get round to taking. There are plenty of other pieces of music that add to the movie’s pleasant allure and help build the picturesque setting of France.

The movie concludes with a collaborative obituary for Arthur Howitzer - the former editor, which is to be written by the journalists from the paper. Overall, the audience is exposed to the endless complications that writing entails, including the personal dilemmas of how to give credence to true stories. Ultimately, the "No crying" rule in the office brought home a similar lesson that my piano teacher had taught me as a child, which was: no tears - you won't be able to read the music.

Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York

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