Throughout his career, writer-director Wes Anderson has established himself as one most distinctive filmmakers in contemporary cinema. From Rushmore (1999) to The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), his work is so uniformly meticulous and consistent, it’s instantly recognisable. In his first feature since Isle of Dogs (2018), The French Dispatch remains faithful to his distinct visual artistry. Inspired by his love for the highbrow magazine The New Yorker, Anderson delivers a multitude of eccentric figures that scurry through his deliberately whimsical stories with great spontaneity.
The French Dispatch is structured around the fictional offices of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper, where the final issue’s being assembled. At the center of the organisation is the paper’s beloved founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). Three vignettes correspond to the separate articles being published in the final issue. The first entry, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, tells the story of the painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), an abstract artist who’s been incarcerated in the local prison for a double homicide. His only solace is drinking mouthwash until he finds an unlikely muse in prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux). And when his work is discovered by art connoisseur and fellow inmate Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), he’s commissioned to create his final masterpiece. Once Cadazio is released, he introduces the art world to Rosenthaler’s work where it becomes an instant sensation. Written and narrated by the renowned modern art critic J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton), she lectures a packed auditorium on Rosenthaler’s rise to artistic prominence.
The middle feature is loosely based on the 1968 student uprising in Paris and written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ chronicles Krementz’s encounters with the disillusioned youth as they approach a standoff with their conservative government. The political journalist abandons her objective after meeting Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), a skilled chess player and young revolutionary. While struggling to uphold the virtues of journalistic neutrality, Krementz assists Zeffierlli rectify his manifesto. However, Krementz doesn’t quite obscure his antagonistic mutual attraction with fellow radical, Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). The third entry is ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). During a television interview, Wright recounts his experience of trying to interview the legendary chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Stephen Park). His study spirals into a rescue mission when a notorious criminal named “The Chauffeur” (Edward Norton) kidnaps the police Commissaire’s beloved son.
Each story beautifully unfolds as if one was flicking through the luxurious papers of Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’ encapsulates the joy and quaint creativity of the filmmaker’s entire filmography. Berensen hilariously relishes every salacious detail, garishly outfitted in a tangerine dress, wearing toothy dentures and a red matronly coiffure. ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ is stylistically beautiful and echoes of French New Wave directors including Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966). Inspired by Mavis Gallant’s article ‘The Events in May: A Paris Notebook’, Anderson offers a whimsical pastiche of real-life events. However, the highlight is the hectic and complicated culinary crime story ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’. It provides a bittersweet sentiment and allows a glimpse into Wright’s history with Howitzer that helps to justify the film’s conclusion. Regardless of whether one prefers the story of the tortured artist, the meeting of love and war, or an exciting heist, each vignette is tightly constructed and continuously engaging.
The French Dispatch is brought to life by a vast array of incredible performances. The dynamic between Benicia Del Toro (Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas) and Lea Seydoux (Spectre) is perhaps Anderson’s most touching love story since his short film Hotel Chevalier (2007). The characters are entwined in a hilarious and affecting story of an incarcerated artist finding his purpose behind bars. Whereas Timothée Chalamet (Dune) shares an unforeseen comedic lightness to match his usual brooding heartthrob presence. The young Trotsky has a pencil moustache, insurrectionary hair, and claims to be “shy about my new muscles”. However, the standout is Jeffrey Wright (No Time To Die) as the publication’s resident culinary journalist, Roebuck Wright. Channeling James Baldwin, his stern gaze and malaise delivery captures the soul-searching essence that’s matured in Anderson’s films over the years. All of the newcomers are on excellent form and seamlessly slip into Anderson’s expanding repertoire of actors.
The background is garnished with charming personalities and regulars of Anderson’s oeuvre. As the highly nuanced amalgam of The New Yorker’s legendary editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, Bill Murray (The Royal Tenenbaums) is hilarious as magazine editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. His deadpan demeanour and saturnine charm belie the fact he cares deeply for his writers. While his ‘No Crying’ sign hanging above his office door indicates his tolerance for sentiment, he helps facilitate his team’s passion. As one would expect there’s also a plethora of colourful cameos: Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man), Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited), Tilda Swinton’s (Suspiria), and Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket) fill the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’s offices. Adrian Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Willem Defoe (Fantastic Mr Fox), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) also make appearances.
While The French Dispatch might seem like an anthology of vignettes, each sequence is graced by Anderson’s love for The New Yorker’s sophisticated musings. Co-written with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), Hugo Guinness (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Jason Schwartzman, the screenplay overflows with middlebrow sophistication and whimsical humour. An early sequence features the travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) as he jaunts around Ennui-sur-Blasé on his bicycle. He explains “an average of 190,000 snowflakes fall per year and an average of 8.2 bodies are dredged from the canal per week.” While his study covers the rats colonising the underground tunnels and the cats congregating on the rooftops. When Howitzer wonders if the article may be too seedy for decent people, Sazerac responds “it’s supposed to be charming.” Anderson succeeds in delivering a delightfully comedic ode to The New Yorker’s distinct sensibilities, while simultaneously sustaining his offbeat energy throughout several overlapping conceits.
A major source of The French Dispatch’s delight is derived from Anderson’s beautiful aesthetic. Much like the identifiable layout of The New Yorker, many of the filmmaker’s distinct idiosyncrasies used across his previous nine features are on display. Robert Yeoman’s (Dogma) symmetrical compositions, skewered angles, and tracking sequences are as meticulously crafted and detailed as ever. However, while the filmmaker’s visual imagination remains similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson elaborates his filmmaking sensibilities. Interspersed among the usual colour palette of mustard yellows and tobacco browns is the director’s first use of monochrome since his original short Bottle Rocket (1994). Whereas he briefly swaps his stationary camerawork to slowly revolve around the seated characters during a dinner table sequence. Additionally, he transitions from stop-motion animation to a gorgeous animated chase scene reminiscent of Belgian cartoonist Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin). While many would argue Anderson’s aesthetic has become somewhat monotonous, The French Dispatch showcases the director has been refining an unparalleled style for almost two decades
Anderson’s combination of filming techniques turns every aspect of The French Dispatch into an eye-catching fantasy. The quaint and merciful environs of the French town Angoulême are reminiscent of Amélie (2001), providing the perfect romanticised backdrop for the fictional town Ennui-sur-Blasé. Set decorator Rena DeAngelo stated, “the town itself was an inspiration. It had everything the script described in its architecture; winding hilly roads and staircases. It was the seedier version of Paris that Wes was looking for”. Enhanced by Adam Stockhausen’s (The Grand Budapest Hotel) elaborate production design, each scene unfolds like a stage production. A particular sequence echoes the playful tone of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) as a waiter hilariously walks up a narrow maze of staircases before bringing Howitzer a drink. The director frequently incorporates Stockhausen’s miniature building facades to depict a setting before revealing a much larger scene. Similar to the technique employed during the Belafonte’s introduction in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Anderson utilised this method during ‘Revisions to a Manifesto.’ A breathless bar sequence creates a stunning unmasking that provides a sensation typically confined to a Broadway production.
Bursting at the seams with delight and ingenuity, The French Dispatch is perhaps Anderson’s most ostentatious movies to date. The filmmaker’s unique travelogue of ideas are seamlessly married together with his usual linguistic wit, cinematographic artistry, and whimsical storytelling. While its multi-layered narrative may seem ambitious, Anderson triumphantly finds a balance between heavy subject matters including incarceration, romance, politics, and organised crime. While some may argue it doesn’t contain the emotional depth of his previous works. One would contest that every moment during its 107-minute runtime is graced by Anderson’s love for the written word and the characters who dedicate their personal lives to it. To quote Berensen “in short the picture is a sensation”.
GERMANY • USA | 2021 | 108 MINUTES | 1:37:1 | BLACK & WHITE • COLOUR | ENGLISH • FRENCH
Cast & Crew
director: Wes Anderson.
writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness & Jason Schwartzman.
starring: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzmen & Saoirse Ronan.