REVIEW: The French Dispatch (2021)

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The point.

If you like or hate Wes Anderson’s previous feature films, you will most likely like or hate The French Dispatch, which opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday 9 December 2021.

Upon Anderson in general.

So we come, at last, to the Wes Anderson conversation. The writer/director’s fans are legion, and boast a loyalist passion that you rarely see outside of sporting events and science fiction conventions. His detractors – perhaps a little less than legion – are equally passionate, enthused not for his films but for finding the most pithy manner of putting Anderson and his works down. His latest feature, The French Dispatch, opens in Australian cinemas next Thursday. ‘On a first viewing,’ wrote The Guardian‘s Wendy Ide, ‘I found it to be among the most punchable films I have ever seen.’ Compare this to Richard Brody in The New Yorker, upon whom much of The French Dispatch is inspired by and based: ‘The French Dispatch is perhaps Anderson’s best film to date.’

If there is one thing about Wes Anderson upon which most can agree, it is that his films are divisive. There are ten of them in all, to date, ranging from this latest release all the way back to his debut Bottle Rocket in 1996. Since his third film, The Royal Tennenbaums in 2001, they have solidified into an immediately recognisable aesthetic. He is considered the leading light of what’s been dubbed the ‘American eccentric cinema’: deliberately mannered, self-aware, and remarkably Brechtian in its alienation of the viewer from his characters.

I apologise for the use of the word ‘Brechtian’. Such are the extremes to which one must extend when considering Wes Anderson. For this, I entirely blame Wes Anderson.

Upon Anderson from a personal perspective.

Here is my take on Anderson, or at least my take on Anderson’s broadly ossified directorial style: the first minute of his film will be one of the most charming 60 seconds of cinema that you have ever seen. Every element of the picture and soundtrack is carefully designed and controlled. The colour palette, the screen ratio, the camera movements – everything is meticulously designed, placed, and arranged. It is all done with a marvellous dry wit and deliberate sense of pop culture pastiche. It invariably features great actors as well, freed from the limitations of realism to really stretch their more theatrical muscles on screen. It is a luxury chocolate in film form: delicious, decadent, and extremely satisfying.

Many years ago I lived in a share house in which one of my housemates was being enthusiastically courted by a young man of amorous intentions. He worked for a distributor of imported foods, and used to steal expensive foods from his employer to give to the subject of his affections. Clearly she wasn’t going to eat it all, so for a period of months every resident of the house was awash with smoked salmon, stuffed olives, and – indeed – luxury chocolates. The first chocolate was, as expected, utterly divine.

After eating them as popcorn for 90 minutes running one night, I can assure you that today, more than two decades later, I cannot even tolerate the smell of Côte d’Or chocolate bouchees.

The French Dispatch, which like all 21st-century Anderson films seems an immediate delight in its opening moments, is a night-long binge of chocolates by the time it concludes 108 minutes later. I want to emphasise that it’s really good, high quality chocolate – this is no Cadbury Daily Milk block of the screen – but no matter the richness of taste or smoothness of texture, it’s still going to be puked up in the lavatory half an hour later.

That’s my feeling on Wes Anderson at any rate. Yours very well may differ, and you’re not wrong: I do appreciate just how beautiful his aesthetic can be. I adore an excess of design, and I applaud whimsy. It is simply that something I appreciate an awful lot more is restraint.

The only sort of review that felt fair. (and a text-based version)

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