The French Dispatch
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The French Dispatch takes us to the French bureau of a fictional magazine—The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, loosely based on The New Yorker—run by editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) a literary romantic who puts quality writing before profit or advertisers and oversees a team of talented but eccentric journalists. Evoking the magazine format, the film is divided into segments: a prologue, a travel guide, three short stories, and an obituary.
Wes Anderson always brings together the crème de la crème of actors with his troupe of regulars, who live and eat together while shooting. The director’s usual suspects here include Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, and Anjelica Huston (as a narrator). There are also a few new and recognizable faces such as Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Christophe Waltz, Elizabeth Moss, Lea Seydoux, and Liev Schreiber. With a cast this large an impressive it won’t come as a surprise that some of the big names only get a couple of minutes screen time.
Love or hate his work, Wes Anderson’s movies are indisputably visually distinctive. He is one of the few living directors who can be properly called an “auteur,” a film-lover’s filmmaker and artistic magpie who shuns modern techniques such as CGI in favor of old-school techniques such as stop-motion, miniatures, lovingly crafted and authentic period props (down to mock newspapers and magazines), and creative camera work provided by his ever-present accomplice, cinematographer Robert Yeoman.
The attention that goes into every detail of the visual content is only matched by the carefully crafted script, in which almost every line seems to have a comedic or symbolic meaning. Like all of Anderson’s work, much of the script—which Anderson co-wrote with regular collaborators Hugo Guinness, Roman Coppola and Jason Schartzman—is instantly quotable and cram-packed with non-stop wit. The humor is accompanied by a charming, tongue-in-cheek parody of French life and culture that could only come from someone who loves France: sidewalk pissoirs, decaying but charming shuttered homes, protestors clashing with police, and an Anthony Bourdain-esque obsession with food above all else.
The action is set in the imaginary city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, based on the Paris of the 1960s and early ‘70s. This isn’t the chic city of Emily in Paris or Moulin Rouge, but the less-polished city of student revolts, the French New Wave film movement, and recovery from the devastation of war. It was during this post-war era that the city once again become a favorite destination for inspiration-seekers such as James Baldwin (the model for Jeffrey Wright’s character) and Miles Davis or, much later, 90s Britpop star Jarvis Cocker—who covers the French song Aline for the soundtrack—and Wes Anderson himself.
The segmented, magazine-like structure might seem unusual, but it explains the switching aspect ratios, use of black and white, and the animated cartoon strip sequences. The three distinct stories that make up the bulk of the narrative are connected to each other only by way of their inclusion in the latest edition of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, and the way they highlight the skill, passion, and lonely life of a journalist.
In fact, although The French Dispatch can be seen a love letter to France and to the movies that have influenced Anderson’s work, it’s mainly a love letter to journalists. The 1960s-70s setting harks back to a golden age of print journalism, making it a topical commentary on the present state of the industry as it faces the challenges of uncertain revenue models and social media and the internet that sometimes prioritizes clickbait over quality writing and editorial values.
This is the most Andersonian of Wes Anderson’s movies so far, and arguably his most ambitious work to date. If you haven’t enjoyed his movies in the past The French Dispatch might not be for you. But if you’re new to his imaginary worlds, give it a chance. You may find yourself craving more and wanting to re-watch it immediately to pick up what you missed amongst the sensory overload.
Other Wes Anderson fans, obviously. But anyone with an artistic sensibility and an appreciation for independent film, decorative arts, or auteurs like Hitchcock, Fellini, Kubrick, or the Coen brothers should appreciate it. As would anyone with an interest in France and French culture, especially French cinema.
The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s tenth movie, and his first in live action since 2014’s four-time Oscar winner The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although this release was delayed from 2020—and Anderson released the stop-motion animated The Isle of Dogs in the interim—that’s a considerable gap. Which really is testament to the volume of creative work that has gone into this movie.