A year after audiences looked forward to seeing Wes Anderson’s latest opus at Cannes in 2020, the time has finally come for The French Dispatch to have its premiere at the festival. The cast and crew arrive at the red carpet on a bus, instead of the usual individual limousines. To top off the peculiarity, it is the only film running in Competition that will not have a press conference.

With the death of its editor-in-chief (Arthur Howitzer Jr, played by Bill Murray), the eponymous French Dispatch magazine faces the production of its final issue. The plot is structured like a print publication, apportioned into different segments such as the Art section (starring Benicio del Toro as criminally insane artistic genius Moses Rosenthaler and Léa Seydoux as his muse) and Politics (featuring Timothée Chalamet playing a student activist in a The Graduate-esque love triangle). 

As with any anthology work, some episodes work better than others. It gets off to a strong start with Owen Wilson playing tour guide and introducing the city jn which the events unfold. The very latest one could be pulled in is the moment a metro train passes through a tunnel, plummeting it into darkness and revealing the mischief of rats living underground. The various narratives peak with the artist-prison storyline: perfect nuances of humour, bamboozlement and a pinch of romance. Towards the end, the Russian nesting doll setup that appears in the Culinary section is easy to lose track of, which is unfortunate considering the magazine itself is trying to go out with a bang.

Naturally, since the cast is comprised of Hollywood elite, some of the characters get the short end of the stick. It feels like casting pearls before swine to have Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz and Saiorse Ronan clock in just over a minute of screen time each. As in all of the director’s films, the performances are constrained – a deliberate stylistic choice. It is interesting to see Anderson-newcomers like Chalamet, usually lauded for emotional depth in his acting, handle this. 

The cinematography is gorgeous, as always, and blocked with immaculate symmetry, even in the rare instances a handheld camera is used. The shots are carefully crafted moving paintings that make up a bigger part of the The French Dispatch’s appeal.

A film that has been so eagerly awaited, with the most impressive ensemble cast since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is almost bound to disappoint, with expectations set so high. Fortunately that’s not really the case here, though it does not exceed them. The French Dispatch hits its marks: it is quirky and entertaining – exactly what viewers have come to anticipate from Wes Anderson. Still, one can’t help but wonder if the incentive to see it would be as high if it weren’t for all the names attached.

★★★★☆

Selina Sondermann

The French Dispatch is released in the UK on 22nd October 2021.

For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.

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