Release Date(s)2021 (December 28, 2021)
Studio(s)Indian Paintbrush/American Empirical Pictures/Searchlight Pictures (20th Century Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: F
The French Dispatch is writer/director Wes Anderson's love letter to print journalism and to the power of the written word, but in an indirect way, it's also a love letter to Anderson himself. Not in an egotistical or a solipsistic fashion, but rather as affectionate self-homage. Anderson has been exploring his personal obsessions for three decades now, developing and refining his own iconic cinematic grammar in the process. Whatever The French Dispatch may have to say about journalism, it couldn't do so as well as it does without that rich history behind it. Regardless of how much Anderson loves the subject matter of any given film, he also loves the language of film itself, and his own particular dialect most of all. In The French Dispatch, he uses his beloved visual and verbal language to explore the written word, and so he inextricably fuses himself with his subject matter.
Anderson wrote the screenplay solo, working from story ideas he developed along with Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman. Their primary inspiration was The New Yorker and its famed stable of writers (many of whom are acknowledged during the closing credits). The French Dispatch revolves around the former Sunday Supplement section of the fictional Evening Sun out of Liberty, Kansas, which has relocated to France and turned what was once a simple travelogue into a minor literary sensation. The film functions as an anthology, with each segment telling a different story, related by a different reporter, all under the watchful eye of founder/editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr., played by the inimitable Bill Murray.
That framework allowed Anderson to play with film form in a variety of different ways, and also to squeeze in as much of his stock company as possible. In addition to new faces like Timothee Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, and Lea Seydoux, he included veterans like Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Mathieu Amalric, and of course, his good luck charm, Bill Murray. If the style of The French Dispatch hadn’t already clearly announced that it was a Wes Anderson film, the cast certainly would have resolved any doubts.
In terms of that style, The French Dispatch is virtually a catalogue of all the tools in Anderson's arsenal: carefully framed tableaus; cutaway set pieces; slow motion; multiple aspect ratios; stop-motion animation; deliberately unrealistic visual effects; and much more. In this case, he even included an animated cartoon sequence, and also switches freely between color and black and white. Every frame of the film is rendered with the same love that Anderson feels toward the written word; again, it’s impossible to separate the creator from his subject matter. Those who dismiss Anderson’s films as excessively twee are missing the fact that his style isn’t mere affectation; it’s utterly sincere affection.
To be fair, like some of Anderson’s films, The French Dispatch isn’t necessarily easy to absorb on a single viewing. Films like The Royal Tenenbaums may be instantly appealing, but others like The Darjeeling Limited require a bit more effort on the part of viewers. The French Dispatch definitely falls into the latter camp, but that’s a feature, rather than a bug. For viewers who are willing to go to the film, rather than waiting for the film to come to them, The French Dispatch is a gift that will keep on giving.
Cinematographer Robert Yeoman shot The French Dispatch on 35 mm film using ARRICAM ST and LT cameras. He utilized Cooke S4 Prime lenses for the shots framed at 1.37:1, and Cooke Anamorphic/I & Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses for the shots framed at 2.39:1. Unlike many modern productions, he didn’t settle for desaturating color footage to create the black and white scenes, but insisted on switching stocks—KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 for the color scenes, and EASTMAN DOUBLE-X Negative Film 5222 for black and white. The entire film was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, and while it’s disappointing that Disney decided not to offer a 4K Ultra HD version of the film, this is a standout Blu-ray transfer. The color sequences are gorgeous, perfectly showing off the intricately designed hues in the sets and the costumes—nothing, not even the smallest differentiation between the shades, happened by chance, and it’s all well-represented in this transfer. The black and white sequences prove that Yeoman made the right choice to shoot on black and white stock; the grain has its own texture that’s distinctly different than the color footage, and there’s more detail in the gradations of its lovely grayscale. Everything seems accurate to Anderson’s intended aesthetic. Short of an upgrade to 4K, there’s little room for improvement here. Note that the entire film is matted at 1.85:1, so the 1.37:1 sequences will appear windowboxed within that frame on a 16:9 display. (Anderson also occasionally uses the space off to the sides for titles and additional images, and even splits the screen for a few shots.)
Primary audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. While the mix is understandably focused on the front channels, the surrounds are used throughout for ambient effects such as reverberations in some of the cavernous sets—though there are a few moments where more active directionalized effects are used, such as during a shootout. Naturally, since this is an Anderson film, most of the mix is driven by the dialogue and the music; both Alexandre Desplat’s score and the well-chosen source music sound fantastic. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Aside from a Digital code, there isn’t a single extra on the disc—not even a trailer.
The French Dispatch is likely not going to win any new fans for Wes Anderson, and it may take some time to win over some of his existing ones, but it’s filled with an abundance of treasures for those who willingly search for them. The more that you bring to it, the more that it will reward the effort.
- Stephen Bjork