The French Dispatch


Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Stephen Park, Léa Seydoux, Timothée Chalamet, Christoph Waltz, Owen Wilson, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Elisabeth Moss, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Benicio Del Toro, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Henry Winkler

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

I feel the same about sitting down for a new Wes Anderson movie as I do about watching Frasier reruns every weekday morning—a sense of comfort in the familiarity, knowing exactly what you’re going to get because everything that follows is pretty much the same as what’s come before. It’s safe, predictable. For Anderson’s latest The French Dispatch, this manifests in the director’s trademark formula of regular collaborators (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody), his dollhouse approach to dissecting architectural structures and his wry, deadpan glimmers of humour delivered through rapid verbosity.

The French Dispatch is an anthology of crazy accounts from the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé and the eponymous publication, headed by American editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) who journeyed to France for a holiday and never left. The Dispatch is a supplement to a newspaper in Howitzer’s hometown of Liberty, Kansas, and is Anderson’s homage to The New Yorker magazine. Its roster of American expatriate writers and illustrators report on Ennui-sur-Blasé’s community of intellectuals and nonconformists through sophisticated long-reads and the occasional accompanying comic strip.

The three main stories told throughout the film are narrated by the journalists who wrote them and are to be printed in the latest and last issue of The French Dispatch, owing to the recent death of Howitzer whose will decreed the publication be shut down upon his demise. J.K.L. Berensen (Swinton, in another pair of comical false teeth) is an art critic and lecturer who recounts the tale of convicted murderer and painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Politics writer Lucinda Krementz (McDormand) struggles to uphold her journalistic neutrality as she covers reports on the town’s impending revolution heralded by some spirited students. Finally, the food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) relates his experience of trying to interview police chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Stephen Park), only to become embroiled in the kidnapping of the comissaire’s son.

This is Anderson’s “love letter to journalists”, and it evidently takes a lot of inspiration from the real people who’ve driven The New Yorker to its great success. It’s hard to predict what past and present New Yorker staff may make of this depiction, but the film was obviously created with the warmest intentions and admiration so you would guess its reception is mostly positive.
It’s possibly his most visually creative live-action feature, and his most self-congratulatory. Yes, we know to expect the usual directory of stars by now, but The French Dispatch is so incredibly stuffed with characters that it’s impossible to feel any sort of attachment with any of them. There’s little to no emotional depth provided at all, and I still haven’t decided whether it blends multiple genres or shirks genre completely. Romance? Hardly. Drama? Too twee. Comedy? Depends who you ask.

Much like some of Anderson’s earlier work such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums, there are the occasional glimmers of melancholy and introspection, bordering on despair. This is treated with the usual languor, befitting of the fictional town name where the Dispatch is based. It’s watchable and largely enjoyable, but by the time the end credits roll it’s hard to pinpoint a particular emotion or opinion about the film at all, either positive or negative.
If you’ve followed Anderson’s filmography and count yourself as a fan, The French Dispatch has everything you want. Just make sure you watch it in a cinema with decent screens, or at least with no one sitting in front of you—because of the director’s proclivity for central framing and symmetry, there are plenty of frames where your focus is brought to the middle of the lower portion of the screen that you might have to crane your head to see.