Even by Wes Anderson’s usual standards, we’ve got a tricky one tonight.
The French Dispatch is an anthology film. Though Wes Anderson is the sole credited screenwriter, it is perhaps noteworthy that Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman all got story credits. Anyway, the film is set in 1975, and comprised of five interconnected short films (plus an epilogue), all of which are centered around the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blase, France.
The eponymous French Dispatch is a magazine based out of Liberty, Kansas. Long story short, the magazine was the brainchild of Editor-in-Chief Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray). Arthur went on a European tour during his college years, and he brought back a number of genius expatriate writers. They all set up shop with the goal of bringing European culture to the American heartland. In short order, they had developed an international following with thousands of subscribers.
Our plot (such as it is) begins when Arthur passes away of a heart attack at the age of 75. Complicating matters further, Arthur’s will clearly states that in the event of his death, everyone on staff at the magazine shall be given a generous severance package, the offices cleared out, all equipment destroyed, and the French Dispatch immediately cease all production permanently. So this movie doesn’t just dramatize an issue of the French Dispatch, it dramatizes the last issue of the French Dispatch. That said, it bears mentioning that Arthur does help glue the film together, as each subsequent chapter is capped by a short scene in which Arthur discusses the article and any potential corrections with the author.
So the film opens with an introduction to the magazine, then moves on to an introduction to our setting. Owen Wilson plays Herbsaint Sazerac, a travel journalist who takes us on a bicycling tour through Ennui, France and its history. With all of that exposition out of the way, we move on to the three short films that comprise the main content of the movie.
First up, J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) brings us the story of Moses Rosenthaler (played as an adult by Benicio del Toro, and as a teenager by Tony Revolori), a revolutionary genius in the field of modern art. The kicker is that Moses was convicted for a double-homicide and sentenced to spend 50 years in an asylum for the criminally insane. Still, Moses creates incredible paintings with the stoic help of his enigmatic muse (Simone, played by Lea Seydoux), who also happens to be a guard at the asylum. Moses’ paintings take the world by storm when a fellow inmate (Julien Cadazio, played by Adrien Brody) gets out of prison and schemes to get rich by promoting Moses’ work.
(NOTE: Seydoux has never been shy about onscreen nudity, and she spends at least half her screentime getting all kinds of naked in her capacity as Moses’ life model. Make of that what you will.)
After that, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) presents a tale of the “Chessboard Revolution”, in which students protest… I honestly have no idea. As best I can tell, this whole thing started out when the male students of some college started campaigning for access to the women’s dorms and the whole thing spiraled out of control from there. It’s a bunch of college kids arguing with each other just for the sake of it while adults attack them with tear gas and rubber bullets, and nobody seems to have a straight answer as to why it’s all happening. I can’t for the life of me tell if that’s a bug or a feature, but we’ll come back to that. Suffice to say that the principal student revolutionaries in this story are Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) and Juliette (Who the hell is Lyna Khoudri and where has she been all this time?!).
Last but not least is Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright), a culinary journalist filing a report on Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park), a prodigious chef with the curious specialty of cooking for police officers. The article takes an unexpected turn when Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), son of the unnamed police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric), is kidnapped by a shadowy criminal syndicate. Hilarity ensues.
Note that I’m only listing the actors with roles that directly impact the plot. If I even attempted to list all the name actors in here with supporting roles or noteworthy cameo appearances, it would take up half the review and spoil a few delightful surprises. And anyway, the real star here is Wes Anderson. We all know the main reason why anyone comes to see a Wes Anderson jam, and it’s here in full force.
From start to finish, the mise-en-scene has been spit-polished to a mirror shine with uncompromising attention to detail. Anderson’s flair for static shots and “slideshow” dolly shots to take us through every last perfectly staged diorama is in full effect. Yet the visuals here have another dimension, as Anderson strategically switches the color on and off. Some shots are in color, some are in black and white, yet the switch is artfully done and again, every shot looks jaw-droppingly marvelous.
Oh, and let’s not forget the animated sequences in that last article. Yes, the charming 2D animated sequences are the highlight, but I also found it rather clever how the filmmakers used stop-motion to show walls crumbling under bullet fire. It’s tactile in a way that CGI isn’t, and it’s tightly controlled in a way that real explosive squibs aren’t, so it fits in nicely with Anderson’s aesthetic. Plus, it was done in a black-and-white shot, which goes a long way in selling the effect. I barely noticed it myself. Brilliantly done.
Anderson’s painstaking attention to detail lends itself to a keen sense of visual comedy, and it helps that so many of his actors are exceptional comedic talents. Couple that the film’s retro 1970s sensibility and Anderson’s dollhouse aesthetic, and the whole movie comes off as overwhelmingly whimsical. And I can’t tell if that’s a bug or a feature.
This is precisely why Moonrise Kingdom and The Fantastic Mr. Fox are still my personal high watermarks for Wes Anderson’s oeuvre to date: His aggressively whimsical style lends itself perfectly to family pictures and cinematic fables that are simple enough for children yet smart enough for adults. Compare that to, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which Anderson made the bewildering decision to try and portray Nazis as the antagonist. Sorry, but whatever the film had to say about genocide or fascism or any other crucial related theme, I can’t take it seriously in a film that portrays the fucking Third Reich with imagery fanciful enough to make Star Wars look like Casablanca. Square peg, round hole.
This movie has the exact same problem, but multiplied by three or five short films with wildly different subjects. I have a difficult time finding any kind of unified theme, and even if I did, I’m not sure how seriously I should take it.
As best I can tell, the film is a love letter to journalism itself. Though all the characters and stories in this film are absolutely fictional, the film is at its best when it serves as a reminder that journalists can tell real-life stories more fantastical than any fiction. A good article in some newspaper or magazine can take the reader to some faraway place or event, and introduce the reader to people who are living and working right now. In that way, a good piece of in-depth investigative reporting can immortalize the subject for future generations.
At its heart and core, this is a movie about a team of journalists who were given the resources and the platform to write the stories they wanted, under an editor who believed that their work was important. Trouble is, this angle is significantly undercut within the opening minutes. For an editor who was so selfless in advocating for his writers, firing all those same writers and taking their platform with him to the grave seems like a terribly selfish thing to do, but maybe that’s just me.
The French Dispatch is a tough one for me to gauge. The film certainly looks incredible — between the painstakingly charming visuals and the cast full of incredible talents who are all clearly having the time of their lives, the film was absolutely a delight to sit through. Even better, the film somehow crammed five short films into a brisk 107 minutes, so nothing in here overstays its welcome. Hell, for better or worse, there are a great many talented A-list actors in here who fly on and off the screen before much of anyone realizes it.
But at the same time, I’m so conflicted about whether the film could have or should have tried to make a more coherent thematic point. Yes, the potential was absolutely there — this is a film about globe-trotting journalists, after all, it’s perfectly logical that they’d cover some story with real-world ramifications. But on the other hand, given Anderson’s fanciful “dollhouse” style, it’s possible that any deeper or more incisive themes may be out of his wheelhouse.
Should you see it? Yeah, I’d totally recommend it for a good time. But outside of the technical awards, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any Oscar nominations. That said, it’s still a film that’s all sizzle and no steak, loaded with over-the-top performances from a phenomenal cast and sumptuous visuals from a bona fide auteur. On those merits, it beats the hell out of House of Gucci.