Auteur Wes Anderson’s latest addition to his oeuvre is a tour-de-force of both performance and story. Structured in the style of a magazine, The French Dispatch turns each article into a miniature film. These whimsical vignettes are bookended by scenes focused on the editor of the titular magazine, Arthur Howitzer, who is brilliantly played by a sardonic Bill Murray. The film begins with Howitzer deciding that although each piece is too long for a standard publication, they will be published as is. Anderson’s tongue in cheek depiction of an editor who is unwilling to edit sets the tone for a film that is, at times, self-indulgent. This self-indulgence is dually depicted within the zany journalists who comprise the film’s cast of characters. Frances McDormand’s Lucinda Krementz, Tilda Swinton’s J. K. L Berensen, and Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck Wright round out the journalists whose editorials the film devotes much of its runtime to, including Anderson-frequents Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, who round out the magazine’s staff as its travel writer and cartoonist.
Each of the film’s major stories focuses on an area of journalism that would not be out of place in an artistic magazine – travel writing, profiles of an avant-garde artist, coverage of a youth movement, and a food column. Each segment is photographed distinctly with varying film stocks, aspect ratios, and lighting styles creating a beautiful patchwork of quirky stories. Robert Yeoman’s photography beautifully captures frenetic frames that are filled with humor. The composition and lighting combine technical brilliance with the humor and energy of a Tati scene. A rollicking script by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman is brought to life by Yeoman’s camera. The pastel colors and witty dialogue are complimented by a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat. The French Dispatch could have been tedious, but the virtuosic filmmaking of Wes Anderson ensured the film’s easygoing nature.
There are but two critiques that I had when I was exiting the theater: the film felt long and a bit self-indulgent. Reflecting upon those criticisms now, they become parts of the film that shine. Anderson’s knowing portrayal of artists who are unwilling to cut away from their work provides a funny metacritique of the role of the artist. This film’s identity as a pastiche of articles, film-formats, characters, techniques, and styles truly felt like the work of a magazine. The highest compliment that I can pay the film was that it felt like a very strong issue of a publication – its food review section was reminiscent of the Paris Review’s “Eat Your Words,” column. The distinct authorial voices of each journalist keep the movie’s pace light and airy. I mentioned above that the film felt long, at no point did it feel tedious, if anything I was sad to see the credits roll. Anderson’s revisionist version of the post-war era could be viewed as problematic by some. Yet, the film departs so heavily from reality that Anderson covers his tracks and prevents any uncomfortable comparisons from being drawn. The reality presented by Anderson’s camera is one far preferable to the era in which the film takes place, but also the moment we currently find ourselves in. Many films about journalism draw heavily on reality for story and inspiration; in the past ten years films like Spotlight, The Ides of March, and The Post have taken heavy handed approaches to informing their audiences. These typical didactic awards-season slogs leave the audience tired and depressed. Anderson separates his film from reality, but not truth. The truth of the French student riots of 68’ , the truth of prisoner exploitation, and so many more truths, are maintained despite Anderson’s uniquely gratifying lens of the past. Yet, the audience spends a significant amount of time laughing. Whereas the aforementioned films talk down to their audience and makes them feel dumb, The French Dispatch makes you feel smart. Anderson treats his audience like adults which prevents this film from coming off as esoteric or pretentious. I am sure that there were many references that went over my head, but enough didn’t that Anderson earns his lofty allusions.
Although the film is funny, there were still many moments that touched me deeply, moments of human interaction and expression that, despite Anderson’s brilliant artifice, felt natural and heartfelt. One such moment occurs between Stephen Park’s Nescaffier and Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck Wright. Both are foreigners in the land of The French Dispatch, and it is hard to not imagine that their interaction, in some way, represents the feelings of Wes Anderson. The expatriate auteur who now lives in France references his native country in a way that is shockingly sweet and not jaded given the world we live in today. Ultimately, it is Murray’s Howitzer who provides the film with its thematic core. His commitment to journalistic freedom and authorial intentionality provides a metacommentary on the nature of the film. The French Dispatch is a film about the beauty of good writing, the importance of knowledge, and the power wielded by curatorial voices. Anderson continues his streak of films that are powerfully spoken in his singular voice. Perhaps less accessible than his previous two films, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch’s straightforward narrative but avant-garde construction is going to divide some audiences. People in search of a strict tight story will, most likely, be disappointed by the Altmanesque meandering. A lesser filmmaker would have gotten lost in the fictional world of the comically named Ennui-sur-Blasé, but Anderson’s peerless style and direction make The French Dispatch a romp for the ages.