This is more appreciation than review. If you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film this will read differently than to those familiar with his style.
The title, subject and structure of Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (2021) comes from a fictitious magazine, an anthology plus an ending sequence to enact the concept given at the outset. Early in the film, its editor Arthur Howitzer Jr tells us that upon his death the magazine must cease publication. The final sequence concerns his obituary.
Anderson follows his usual stylistic procedures for The French Dispatch. Screen pictures have a compulsive symmetry, with so many reminders of artificiality that you can never mistake this for reality. We get his usual elaborate chase sequences. Romance rears its head. We not only get moments that use models but even periods when animation takes over. And yet amid Anderson’s fetish for order we get elaborate depictions of chaos, fights, mayhem. Anderson again puts an elaborate title sequence at the end requiring multiple viewings / hearings to see all the detail. We are presented with a series of clever magazine covers each before us for only a few agonized seconds, then snatched away.
The cast includes many of the usual actors seen in previous films, whether in small parts (Ed Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe), or big ones (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody), joined by actors in their first appearance (Timothee Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Léa Seydoux, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler).
One of Anderson’s recurrent themes concerns youth and children, who seem to be our best hope. Some of his movies (not this one) might even be mistaken for children’s films, the sort of cinema intended for the young.
There are three magazine stories in the film plus the closing sequence. The first segment explores the sale and commodification of art. The second concerns student activism and the influence of the press upon the creation of the story, including its transformation into other sorts of discourse. The third segment is more ambiguous, broaching concerns about race, crime, class.
The original release of French Dispatch was announced for July 2020, but delayed until autumn 2020, then put off again into 2021, finally released in October of this year. Anderson’s next film Asteroid City is in post production, announced for 2022, starring Tom Hanks & Scarlett Johansson, with appearances from such regulars as Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.
I find that repeated viewings of films help me discover layers of meaning that I didn’t notice the first time. While I can’t decide how much I like The French Dispatch, possibly because I’m not sure I understand it, I know I will see it again. Anderson invites this, indeed seems to require this from his elaborate self-referential structures and the density of the creation in places such as the series of magazine covers at the end of the film. There are moments to make you think, some to make you laugh, but I was missing anything so urgent as to make me cry, at least on my first viewing; I suspect that will change as I get to know the film better.
As I try to avoid spoilers forgive me if I make it sound completely abstract. The writing of reviews can be ruminative, a way to digest and rediscover the joy and beauty of a work of art. Or simply an attempt to figure out what you’ve seen and heard.
APPENDIX: Trailers for Wes Anderson’s ten feature films
1-Bottle Rocket (1996)
3-The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
4-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
5-The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
6-Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
7-Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
8-Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
9-Isle of Dogs (2018)
10-French Dispatch (2021)
Asteroid City would be the eleventh, reportedly in post-production and expected in 2022 according to its IMDB entry.