Wes Anderson’s films usually revolve around those who enjoy a certain level of decadence and elitism. His works display a unique ability to find humour and heart in individuals who frequently believe that status and intellect are linked, even though reality debunks such correlations. Considering his fascination with highbrow society it should come as no surprise that his tenth film, The French Dispatch, is inspired by The New Yorker, a publication that he devoured in college.
The film is not just an ode to the magazine and its legacy of writers, but also to an era where journalism was revered. A time when publishers cared more about supporting their writers than they did about word counts and clickbait headlines. Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), the founder and editor of The French Dispatch of Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is one of those men who believes in coddling his brilliant collection of writers. Known for frequently telling his staff to “try and make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” Howitzer, Jr. is the type of person who would rather take a financial hit than cut a well-written piece from his publication.
In typical Anderson stylized fashion, the director brings viewers into the offices of the publication and the lively French town it inhabits with gusto. An anthology tale, it does not take long to become familiar with the vibrant world Anderson builds and the eccentric individuals who exist within it. He uses “cyclist reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) to introduce audiences to the history of the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, where the film takes place, in a witty fashion reminiscent of the works of Jacques Tati. Documenting the ever-changing city, whose citizens range from prostitutes to old people to mischievous choir boys “drunk on the blood Christ,” Sazerac perfectly sets the stage for the vignette-based storytelling of the film.
Presenting the segments as a living magazine, three of the publication’s writers – J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) – serve as narrators and observers for the articles they recount. Berensen’s piece “The Concrete Masterpiece” is an examination of an incarcerated and prototypical tortured artists Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) who rekindles his love of painting when he finds his muse in prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux). His art soon catches the eye of fellow inmate and art-dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who, along with his uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban), devises a scheme to make the pieces a sensation in the art world. However, Rosenthaler’s mental state may jeopardize Cadazio dreams of fortune just as he is about to secure his biggest buyer yet.
An amusing and surprisingly bittersweet vignette, Anderson manages to explore the commodification of art while simultaneously offering a nuanced portrait of healing nature of creativity and unconventional relationships. Unique bonds can also be found in the second story “Revision to a Manifesto” in which Lucinda Krementz recounts a student protest lead by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), two individuals who find themselves on different sides of the same political movement. Though inspired by real protests of May 1968, the section is a both coming-of-age tale and a commentary on whether journalists can truly claim neutrality when closely covering a story.
Getting too close to a story is something that “food/social critic” Wright has no choice in the matter when a dinner at a local prison, featuring a meal prepared by esteemed chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park), provides him with a front row seat to a kidnapping. The wildest story in the film, “The Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is an zany romp that finds a local police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) using all of his resources to save his son from the clutches of a gang of mobsters and showgirls. Incorporating several moments of French cartoon inspired animation, the segment is filled with many of the wonderful visual cues that make Anderson’s work so appealing.
Occasionally playing like a greatest hits album from a stylistic perspective, one could make a fun drinking game out of spotting which techniques were used in his previous works. However, The French Dispatch is more than a trip down memory lane. It is arguably Anderson’s most visually intriguing work yet. Recounting articles in Black and White, he injects brief moments of colour to emphasize the passion in a sprawling piece of art, the awaking of young love, and to emphasize the humanity in a person’s eyes to name a few. Anderson is frequently challenging himself by experimenting with the medium of film even more than he has in previous works. While some of it is rather amusing to observe, such as when actors are required to freeze in place, his visual flare offer some surprisingly profound moments.
As gleeful as this love-letter to journalism is, one still manages to walk away reflecting on the small moments in life, take the passage of time or the need to discover new things for example, in unexpected ways. While not as emotionally rich as his previous works, there is much to enjoy in this anthology. The French Dispatch is a vibrant and visually playful work worthy of stopping the presses for.