In a first for Anderson, the film’s journalist segments are shown in black and white while the office segments are in color. He’s long experimented with color grading and frame shifts, often in the same scene. After this and Grand Budapest, Anderson’s clearly thinking about endings, and there are few better equipped directors to bring a fine sense of sadness to their films. He’s long dealt with depression and depressed characters, and no matter how much fun his films often are, one can’t shake a constant tone of melancholy. The black and white is well suited to this, especially in the moments when Anderson shifts within the journalist segments to color. Additional viewings would be needed to construct a full accounting of how he uses it and when, but on first watch, the sense is that the shifts are a breaking through of reportage to a beautiful truth that defies words. That’s high-flying language but The French Dispatch stunned me into submission. Anderson often frames his films around one perfect moment, particularly in The Life Aquatic, and he builds several instances of revelation and serenity into each of The French Dispatch’s pieces.
Another of Anderson’s trademarks is his creation of clockwork worlds, and those are here, too. Whether he’s gotten better at them or I’ve become more tolerant of them is an open question, but in this instance, I found them all adorable. The complex process of bringing drinks from the street into the offices is given its own static shot, where the porter climbs various stairwells and dumbwaiters to prevent any spills. Away from his love of cross-sections, Anderson plays with still photography such that he has extras stand still as if they were in photographs, but holds the camera on them longer than they’re capable of holding their poses. This could just be a fun eccentricity, or something about the artificiality of photography and how insufficient a single image is, but it provides more density to a film with a lot on its mind. The calculated and precise nature of Anderson’s work never hides itself, as in a scene where cops burst into an obvious set from all angles, including through the walls as they point their guns right at the camera. Some directors make the viewer wonder how they pulled off a shot: Anderson shows his work. It’s easy to imagine these kinds of touches putting off the viewer, but when the aforementioned emotional beats are hitting so hard, humorous bits in the filmmaking provide range instead of annoyance.
No great anthology can justify itself without some common thread uniting the segments. Here, the three main pieces are all interested in those moments of apotheosis that made French Dispatch so memorable. In the student revolution segment, Timothee Chalemet plays the de facto leader of the revolutionaries, and the moment is his as he goes from someone whose aims are provincial towards someone imagining what else he and his comrades could accomplish. In the cooking/kidnapping segment, both Wright and Park’s cook get one, individually and communally talking about times when they, both outsiders in Ennui-sur-Blasé due to their respective races, felt accepted. The prison art segment is more surreal, befitting its subject. Del Toro’s Rosenthaler enters prison a younger man, played by Tony Revolori, and the transition from Revolori to Del Toro is a heartbreaking reminder of all the moments that Rosenthaler has lost while in prison. Their stories are all in service of a magazine patterned off the New Yorker, but here, the connection to Kansas is explicitly stated. Tales of art and politics from around the world are being brought to the middle of the country, allowing the sharing of these moments and the shortening of the distance between them. It’s big-hearted and beautiful.
Everything in between these emotional exclamation points is led by a cast of Anderson stalwarts and newcomers. Saorsie Ronan and Ed Norton show up in Wright’s piece, Adrien Brody’s in Berenson’s, and Elisabeth Moss works in the home office alongside Jason Schwartzman and Wally Wolodarsky. Out of the deep cast, Anderson-newbie Wright steals the film. As a James Baldwin-equivalent, he’s tender and fragile and completely in love with his surroundings. Wright’s singular voice is well-suited to monologues and narration, both of which he delivers with gravitas and gusto. He single-handedly banishes any embarrassment about eating alone with a brilliant monologue, and turns it into a noble endeavor. There are no dead moments or performances in The French Dispatch, and it’s Wright who emerges as the most alive of all his distinguished castmates.
There’s enough in The French Dispatch for a lot more writing and dissecting, but tribute must be paid to the editor. Raves have to end somewhere. Each of Anderson’s last three live-action films have been top-tier, and after that kind of a run, I fully subscribe to his newsletter. His ode to magazines and the editors who keep the printing presses running and the journalists who fill them up is a master of one medium paying tribute to another. A