To create the ambiance for the so-called stage in which I went to see The French Dispatch, the newest heavily stylistic film from Wes Anderson, I arrived at my local AMC theater, found my reserved seat, sat down, and noticed the speaker system was crackling and humming on a consistent basis throughout the showing. Maybe it was just during the pre-show and the speakers would correct themselves as the film started but, it didn’t change, and the low hum transported me to the time in which this film takes place. The sound didn’t bother me all too much instead, I didn’t really notice it thanks to the quickly spoken dialogue heavy script written Anderson.
For the acclaimed director, The French Dispatch is exactly what anyone would expect his mind to create and put into moving pictures. Everything on screen is exactly what would pop up in one of his uniquely inspired films. From the set design to the color palette to the aspect ratio shifts to the tongue and cheek subtle use of well-placed humor to the ensemble cast that spares no one’s talent, The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s love letter to the art and craft of journalism and its impact on society.
There is no centralized plot in The French Dispatch, its defined more as an anthology of stories that all come together to paint a larger picture. Broken up into 4 sections, the film starts with the sudden death of the editor-in-chief Author Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) and his exquisite team of journalists who recount their most prized stories. In his death, the paper, which is based on Harold Ross, the co-founder of The New Yorker is set to stop production and cease to exist. In Wes Anderson fashion, no one seems to mind or show any emotion, partly due to the rule of the office – no crying.
The first story, if it can be considered that, is a tour of Ennui past and present, by traveling writer and staff member Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). And part of the ensemble and staff include the talents ofElisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Wally Wolodarsky, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Anjelica Houston, Bruno Delbonnel & Jarvis Cocker. All with smaller roles but each with an important role within the office of Howitzer. The second story belongs to staff member and writer J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton) who wrote a story about a prisoner Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) who has been sentenced for committing a murder. While in prison, he paints one of the prison guards Simone (Léa Seydoux) which draws the attention of Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) an art dealer insistent on buying Moses’s work.
Story number 3 is written and narrated by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) as she profiles a student revolution. The revolutionist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) brings about what comes to be known as the “Chessboard Revolution” in which Zeffirelli writes a manifesto with the assistance of Krementz despite her wish of maintaining journalistic integrity. Story number 4 and the final one revolves around writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a food journalist who recounts a story of himself attending a private differ with Ennui police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) as he rescues his kidnapped son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal).
Four stories, centered around this one fictional city in France paint a picture of journalists and their work. Sometimes, they get caught up in the middle of a kidnapping or in the middle of a revolution or report on the finer thing’s life may offer like art. Either way, Anderson bases his stories off actual New Yorker stories with his own flair of genius.
Like many Anderson films, an ensemble cast is expertly picked and given a role. Among the major roles, the usual suspects that always make their way in an Anderson film return from Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, & Tony Revolori, who all are given equally important roles within the sheer number of actors and actresses that pop up. That’s one thing I admire about Anderson, he doesn’t waste talent – every character is important one way or another to each story being told.
However admirable I am of Anderson’s keen eye for storytelling, The French Dispatch had questionable choices that I wouldn’t be shocked if others had the same inquires about. For one, the subtitles whenever a character would speak French, the speed in which the words would disappear, keeps the viewer from truly grasping the story with the font size that is barely legible. I must have not gotten the “bring a magnifying glass” memo. Having to stop focusing on the lush, hand-crafted environment to read faster than the brain could process only to have the next sentence pop up is frustrating and would instantly kill any momentum that was gained in the set up and narration. I feel I missed half of each story due to that. But each story, though individualistically crafted, comes together for the sake of change and how a city adapts to that change. Owen Wilson’s Sazerac in his bicycle ride through the town shows exactly that. With a change in time and decade, nothing changes all too much. It’s true for any place in the world today in which the films centralized theme stems from. Certain areas like pick-pocket alley become equally as dangerous currently as in the past.
Anderson is an ambitious director – there is no doubt about that. His love of the past, whether it’s the creation of a Magazine or newspaper and the art of the journalists who brings stories to life with their words, or to old Hollywood and bringing a less than favorable aspect ratio to how his stories are told or the heavy use of black and white and the production of practical sets. It’s the same stylistic way he crafts The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson’s use of levity in a serious moment keeps these stories from going to dark or taking themselves all too seriously. And something completely unexpected is the brief switch to animation during the 4th story.
The lack of a centralized plot may turn some viewers off while the same stylistic aesthetic Anderson frequents may keep a viewer’s interest in lieu of that fact will determine how some view The French Dispatch compared to Anderson’s filmography. Each set is beautifully constructed, made to look and feel authentic to the period that stands out against the previous scene. It’s not his best work, some pacing issues arise and a momentum kill every now and then and the lack of a main character keep The French Dispatch from reaching its true potential.
I tried to make it sound like I wrote this on purpose.
Written By: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness & Jason Schwartzman
Directed By: Wes Anderson
Music By: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Elisabeth Moss, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric
Release Date: October 22, 2021
Running Time: 1 Hour, 43 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
My Score: 3 out of 5