The films of Wes Anderson, with their intricately layered details and fanatically meticulous design, almost invariably reward a second viewing. That is certainly the case with his latest, The French Dispatch, a showily starry portmanteau picture that takes as a jumping-off point the final issue of a supplement magazine for the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper. But given that on a first viewing I found it to be among the most punchable films I have ever seen, the initial bar was lower than with some of Anderson’s other pictures.
The problem with the anthology structure – the film is made of three discrete stories, each based on a feature article by one of the magazine’s star writers, plus a brief scene-setting travelogue that digs into the insalubrious corners of the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé – is that it’s almost inevitably uneven. And however engaging the film’s final story is – the most satisfying by no small margin; a food review turned heist thriller narrated by and starring Jeffrey Wright at his most mellifluous and charming – patience will be sorely tried by the segment that comes before it.
This is a tale of student protest, starring Frances McDormand as ace reporter Lucinda Krementz and Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, the wild-haired, chess-playing, Gauloise-sucking student leader. It says something about Anderson’s hermetically sealed privilege that he can take something as essential as dissent and render it in a tonal palette that is all cutesy pastels and adorable kitsch, while neatly sidestepping any hint of politics. Elsewhere, though, there is more to admire.
The first section, a portrait of a criminally insane artist (Benicio del Toro), is a sly pleasure, not least because it’s narrated by Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen, a fabulously glamorous creature with buck teeth, a tangerine evening dress and the tantalising hint of a scandalous past. The travelogue – a bike-powered voyage to the dark side starring Owen Wilson, which takes in pickpockets, floating corpses and bands of renegade choirboys – has a bracing savagery that’s at odds with the film’s self-consciously charming aesthetic. And Anderson’s backdrop, a kind of steroidally enhanced Frenchness reminiscent of films such as Belleville Rendez-Vous and Amélie, is rather lovely, if ultimately as far removed from reality as is the film’s romanticised view of journalism.