Review: “The French Dispatch”

Perhaps I’m showing my personal bias for Wes Anderson’s work— his use of color, meticulously detailed sets, and symmetrical framing has always appealed to me— when I say that I loved “The French Dispatch” from the moment it began. A pair of hands efficiently fill a tray with all manner of beverages, before we see the waiter, in a scene reminiscent of peering inside a dollhouse, ascend to the top of the neighboring building in an increasingly absurd manner, climbing stairs and ladders while balancing his tray all the while. He is bringing it into the office of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the editor of the newspaper The French Dispatch. As swiftly as this opening sequence (with narration by Anjelica Huston) introduces us to the inner workings of the French Dispatch offices and all its staff, we learn that Howitzer has actually just dropped dead of a heart attack at his desk. In his will, he stipulated that the newspaper would end with him; and so, the film that follows is less a connected story and more an anthology depicting the stories published in the final issue of the French Dispatch and the writers who authored them.

“The French Dispatch” is divided into four stories surrounded by a prologue and epilogue. In “The Cycling Reporter,” Owen Wilson plays travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (incredible name), who provides a tongue-in-cheek tour of the French town of Ennui (which literally translates to “Boredom”). In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” written by J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Benicio del Toro is Moses Rosenthaler, a disturbed artist serving prison time for murder who becomes a sensation thanks to the portraits he paints of Simone (Léa Seydoux), one of the guards with whom he forms a relationship. In “Revisions to a Manifesto,” journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) profiles student revolutionaries led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). And in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) attends a dinner at a police commissioner’s (Mathieu Amalric) home prepared by acclaimed chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park), only for trajectory of the entire evening to change when the commissioner’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom.

Bill Murray (left) as newspaper editor Arthur Howitzer in “The French Dispatch”

Like most anthologies, some of the stories are more effective than others, and with “The French Dispatch,” there isn’t a strong overall theme tying them all together, outside of the fact that they were all published in the same newspaper. But I would argue that they have a couple big things in common, namely in how they depict loneliness, and especially the loneliness suffered by creatives. “The Concrete Masterpiece” is the hardest of the three to connect to the others; while she exhibits a big personality, we don’t get to know Swinton’s J.K.L Berensen on as intimate a level as Krementz and Wright. We do, however, see how the artist Rosenthaler is both physically and emotionally isolated from others; and even when he is physically near Simone, she rebuffs him, telling him that she does not love him. She is his muse, and they maintain a friendship, but he can never get closer to her than when he is painting her. In “Revisions to a Manifesto,” the issue is addressed in a more straightforward manner regarding Krementz, who seems to believe that keeping her distance makes her a better journalist. But that doesn’t stop her from getting a little too close to Zeffirelli, or from shedding mascara-streaked tears when at dinner Zeffirelli’s parents try to set her up (with Christoph Waltz’s art collector) and bring up the fact that she is alone. The final story addresses this most movingly. The story-within-a-story structure sees Wright appearing on a talk show where he recounts his kidnapping story word-for-word. But he briefly deviates from the text when the host (played by Liev Schreiber) asks him why he most often chooses to write about food. Wright speaks about how no matter where he is, he can always take comfort in the fact that somewhere, there is a table and a warm meal waiting for him. There’s a stigma around dining alone—it’s an activity that most people prefer not to partake of solo— but the way Wright speaks about it (“It has been the solitary feast that has been very much like a comrade”) turns it into a source of solace, especially being a foreigner in a new country. No matter where you are, the ritual of sitting down and ordering a meal is always essentially the same. The source of each character’s isolation is slightly different, and Anderson’s screenplay never makes any explicit statements about it, but I do think there is a sense of loneliness that goes hand in hand with being a creative individual, whether you paint, write, cook, or otherwise. There’s always a part of your brain that’s focused on whatever project you’re currently engaged in, and that can sometimes make it difficult to connect with other people or things.

I was moved by “The French Dispatch,” even though its bursting-at-the-seams cast of characters and anthology format doesn’t allow for the time to develop as strong an emotional connection to all of them as with Anderson’s previous films. Visually, however, this is Anderson at his most. The director pulls out every trick in his bag and then some. He alternates between black-and-white and color throughout the film, and sometimes his intention is discernible (when the Commissaire’s kidnapped son asks Saoirse Ronan’s showgirl if her eyes are blue, the film briefly switches to color for a close-up of her striking blue eyes), but frequently it isn’t. Every shot is meticulously arranged, from establishing shots of incredibly detailed sets, every actor perfectly placed, to tableaus of actor’s frozen in place. As much as I often found it riveting, I wouldn’t absolutely not recommend that a Wes Anderson newbie start with this movie; it’s almost overwhelming in every aspect.

Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet in “The French Dispatch”

“The French Dispatch” is intended to be Anderson’s tribute to newspapers like The New Yorker, and a few of the characters are even modeled on real people (Wright, for example, is a combination of James Baldwin and New Yorker journalist A.J. Liebling). I’m not sure that the love letter to journalism aspect of the movie fully comes through, as we spend the bulk of the film inside the stories, not inside the newsroom, but the feeling of community and the spirit of collaboration between Howitzer and his staff is apparent even in the few short scenes they share. It’s a nice contrast to the otherwise lonely lifestyles the writers appear to lead while out exploring a story. Murray’s performance immediately engenders a warm, patriarchal feeling in the firm but understanding manner through which he communicates with his peers, and the rest of the cast does solid work, even though some register more than others (Wright is, in my opinion, the stand-out). “The French Dispatch” isn’t going to do it for everyone; it isn’t even doing it for all of Anderson’s usual fans. But it was impossible for me not to get swept up in its whimsical environments and delight in its quirky sense of humor, occasionally punctuated by emotionally eviscerating moments. Anderson’s filmmaking style, so distinct from anyone else, is exciting even when it doesn’t perfectly work—and that’s more than I can say for a lot of contemporary directors.

“The French Dispatch” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.

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