Wes Anderson pens an extravagant love letter to the adventurous editors of sophisticated literary magazines like The New Yorker, and to the writers, humorists and illustrators nurtured up through their ranks, in The French Dispatch. Bursting at the seams with hand-crafted visual delights and eccentric performances from a stacked ensemble entirely attuned to the writer-director’s signature wavelength, this is the film equivalent of a short story collection. That makes it episodic by nature and less nourishing in narrative terms than some of Anderson’s through-line features. But the Searchlight release is a beguiling curio, and one that no other filmmaker could have created.
The decision to keep the movie on hold for a year from its original premiere slot after the cancellation of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival makes perfect sense given its playful celebration of all things French, not least of them French cinema. Anderson acknowledges a long list of influences, among the most conspicuous of them the beatnik hipsterism of nouvelle vague-period Godard, the youthful rebellion and romantic rapture of Truffaut, the social satire of Renoir and the slapstick of Tati. While the musicals of Jacques Demy are not mentioned, those are also evoked in the ravishing color palette.
The French Dispatch
A bumper issue.
Audiences who in the past have found Anderson’s work precious and overly mannered are unlikely to alter that view, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some accuse the new film of veering almost into self-parody. But others who have savored their excursions into the director’s richly imagined, idiosyncratic worlds will marvel at the wonders of Adam Stockhausen’s production design, with its ingenious sets and miniatures and models, which transform the ancient Roman southwestern town of Angoulême into the whimsically named fictional locale of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The setting is no less elaborate a confection and each frame no less packed with artisanal detail than those of The Grand Budapest Hotel, arguably The French Dispatch’s closest kin among Anderson’s previous films.
Continuing his affection for narrative boxes-within-boxes, Anderson structures the movie as an obituary, a travel column and three feature articles, all appearing in the final issue of the widely read magazine that provides the title. The obituary is for Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the founding editor of The French Dispatch, who left his native Kansas 50 years earlier and spent decades assembling a talented team of expat journalists. Inspired by legendary New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, Howitzer is an avuncular figure but also a hard taskmaster in Murray’s typically deadpan performance. The “No Crying” sign hanging above his office door indicates his tolerance for sentiment, while the Issue-in-Progress board laying out the various articles and illustrations vying for space could almost be one of Anderson’s own storyboards. Howitzer’s will stipulates that the magazine will cease publication upon his death.
The travel column is written by “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), who tools around town on his bike, drolly commenting on a day in the life of Ennui. Given a visual assist with split-screen and inventive wipes, he guides us through the past, present and future of various corners, and surveys colorful locals like the streetwalkers and gigolos who gather on the cobblestones after dark. His study covers the rats that colonize the underground tunnels, the cats that congregate on the rooftops and the wriggly anguillettes that live in the canals.
The first of the features is The Concrete Masterpiece, written by art correspondent J.K.L. Berensen, who frames the piece as a lecture at a Kansas arts center. Tilda Swinton, who never met an outré disguise she didn’t like, looks every inch the part, outfitted by costumer Milena Canonero in deliciously garish upscale boho-chic, with a swooping matronly coiffure, a heap of power jewelry and a toothy dental plate. Berensen relishes every salacious detail, particularly the hints of her own intimate associations with the modern art world.
Her story centers on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a growling sociopath serving time for a double homicide in the Ennui Prison/Asylum. In the hobby room, he begins painting a series of nudes of his muse, taciturn prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), which spark the interest of art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) while he’s in jail for tax evasion. Upon his release, Cadazio and his uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler) begin promoting Rosenthaler’s work, stoking the market until prominent buyers are drawn from far and wide to the surprising unveiling of his magnum opus, including renowned Kansas collector Upshur “Maw” Clampette (Lois Smith). It seems an unlikely reference, but could Anderson be riffing on The Beverly Hillbillies with that name?
Next up is Revisions to a Manifesto, Anderson’s characteristically screwy take on France’s May 1968 protests, written by stoical essayist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). While alternately guarding and disregarding the virtues of journalistic neutrality, she takes up with the student revolutionaries busy overthrowing centuries of Republican authority — or just demanding access to the girls’ dormitory. Chief among them is impassioned chess master Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), whose momentary distraction with the worldly Lucinda doesn’t quite obscure his antagonistic mutual attraction with fellow zealot Juliette (Lyna Khoudri).
The third and knottiest feature is The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, by food writer Roebuck Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright as a dandified James Baldwin. The frame this time is a TV chat show interview conducted by Liev Schreiber. Roebuck explains how his profile of Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), the gifted personal chef to the municipal police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric), spiraled into chaos. This happened when a gang of thugs and showgirls (Saoirse Ronan memorable among them) abducted the commissaire’s son and protégé (Winston Ait Hellal), demanding the release of the underworld accountant known as The Abacus (Willem Dafoe).
Inspired physical comedy figures throughout the film but reaches particularly giddy heights in this section, which features gorgeous animated escape sequences in a bandes dessinées style reminiscent of Belgian cartoonist Hergé, creator of The Adventures of Tintin, while also evoking classic New Yorker covers.
The “end note” is the writing of Howitzer’s obituary, which becomes a collaborative effort involving the entire staff. That includes the mathematically minded copy editor (Elisabeth Moss) and the cartoonist (Jason Schwartzman, who developed the story with Anderson, Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness). Even the smallest role is garnished with the charming peculiarities that are vintage Anderson, though if I had to pick standouts, those would be Del Toro, Seydoux, McDormand, Chalamet and Wright, all of whom appear to be having a fine old time. And it’s a pleasure to hear the voice of Anjelica Huston (so divinely dry in The Royal Tenenbaums) as narrator.
Regular collaborators who make vital contributions include DP Robert Yeoman, his visuals mixing black and white with color and alive with all the trademark symmetries, skewed angles and careful compositions; and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose doodling piano themes help shape the jaunty tone.
While The French Dispatch might seem like an anthology of vignettes without a strong overarching theme, every moment is graced by Anderson’s love for the written word and the oddball characters who dedicate their professional lives to it. There’s a wistful sense of time passing and a lovely ode to the pleasures of travel embedded in the material, along with an appreciation for the history of American foreign correspondents who bring their perceptive outsider gaze to other cultures. The mission of the magazine is summed up thus near the end of the film: “Maybe with good luck we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”