Wes Anderson’s meticulously crafted omnibus narrative The French Dispatch pushes his pursuit of beauty to new levels, but he struggles to make it more than a visual exercise. His rotation through a bevy of far-flung correspondents opens with a eulogy: Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), based on The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, has died. A Midwesterner inspired by his youthful travels to France, Howitzer wanted to send the happenings of Ennui-sur-Blasé back to the corn fields of Kansas. So he founded a supple magazine, The French Dispatch, as a supplement of The Evening Sun.
The movie doesn’t address how Howitzer died. Anderson only notes that he passed away at his desk, and that his final wish was for the Dispatch to cease publication upon his death, with the final issue devoted to his obituary. The rest of the film takes place prior to his passing, tracking how his low-key spirited defense of his neurotic journalists and his blasé demeanor helped guide what stories made each issue. His favorite advice for his writers: “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
The film is divided into five separate vignettes, each a reported column belonging to a specific newspaper section, written by one of the journalists. As is often the case with anthology-style films, some sections work better than others. Anderson’s penchant for dry comedy used to explain grief, the inner workings of dysfunctional people, and children experiencing the loss of innocence comes to the forefront once again. And yet this is the director’s least digestible work. It’s supposedly a love letter to the New Yorker of yore, but while The French Dispatch features Anderson’s familiar aesthetic style, it’s often a distant omnibus that might appeal only to his most ardent fans.
From the beginning of the film, it’s difficult to square the emotional throughline. The first story is written by the travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), a slapstick exposé informed by his biking through the seedier areas of Ennui. The second tale, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” sees an imprisoned sociopathic painter (Benicio del Toro) coming to the attention of a huckster and imprisoned art dealer (Adrien Brody). Léa Seydoux, playing a prison guard, is Del Toro’s muse. And Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L. Berensen is the reporter. Neither of these stories are narratively striking. The amusement stems from the actors’ commitment to the bit — especially Del Toro and Swinton, as two idiosyncratic characters with little regard for how people perceive them.
Other stories fail to land too: “Revisions To A Manifesto” sees reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) profiling rebelling students imposing a revolution in May of 1968. Dune star Timothée Chalamet, portraying a Dylan-esque reprisal of his Lady Bird character, is the student leader, while Lyna Khoudri takes the role of his antagonistic teenage opposition. Chalamet tackles the part straight-on, rendering his character with a forced confidence, a kind of projected maturity that only serves to obscure his insecurities. Likewise, McDormand is playing a role she’s assumed before, with greater success: Her “stern adult trying to relate to the youth” character here doesn’t live up to her role in Almost Famous.
When these stories do come alive, it’s due to Anderson’s familiar visual language. He relies on sharp, textured black and white, a cool-toned color palette (he seems to switch to color without reason), and animation. His compositions are always well-considered, but his depth of field is richer and denser than ever before. He’s clearly composing odes to French New Wave standouts Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir. The only portion of the frame not fully realized is Elisabeth Moss, undertaking a minor, thankless role as the Dispatch copyeditor. But on the topics of travel, food, art, and politics, Anderson has little to say beyond aping other literary styles.
These vignettes are fine facsimiles of intriguing New Yorker columns, but they aren’t interesting in themselves. They’re loquacious, self-effacing long-reads, which can be interpreted as an ode to journalism, a kind of voice-specific reporting that’s seemingly been lost today. But Anderson isn’t wholly concerned with the journalists’ stark, quick-shifting perspectives. It’s noteworthy to consider how The French Dispatch opens. The film’s narrator, voiced by Anjelica Huston, explains how the paper’s sensibilities reflect its founder’s personal tastes.
Anderson’s The French Dispatch isn’t merely a love letter to journalism, it’s a romanization of an ideal editor. A myriad of scenes find Howitzer parsing the copy for redundancy, sifting through the lines of prose to elucidate the heart of a piece. Though he protests the exorbitant expenses his writers pile up, their overruns on word count, and the way they turn in stories he didn’t initially assign, he never cuts a column. He finds a way to make his writers’ voices work in concert with his vision. With that logic in mind, every illustration we see has been picked to match his tastes, making for a double curation by both the character and Anderson. In a sense, he’s his film’s own editor-in-chief, wrangling together these disparate actors he’s come to dearly trust.
Maybe that’s why The French Dispatch’s final segment bears the film’s kindest heart. “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” follows Jeffrey Wright portraying a food critic with a photographic memory of every word he’s ever written. The character is appearing on a talk show hosted by Liev Schreiber, presumably long after Howitzer’s death. The writer recounts how he met the renowned chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park) while visiting a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) on the night a chauffeur (Edward Norton) kidnapped the commissioner’s son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal). It’s a sweet tale because Wright’s character is the only one of the journalists who expresses gratitude toward Howitzer. His memorial is real, affecting, and without an overzealous aesthetic flourish, made possible by Wright’s detailed yet vulnerable performance.
The tenor Wright strikes leads perfectly to the film’s eulogizing end. Howitzer’s writers gather round to compose his obituary, in a tribute to their fallen leader. But there’s a lot of bifurcation in this movie (the artist’s double vision, Chalamet’s two lovers, etc.), and it’s mirrored in the doubling in this scene. Anderson’s trusted performers are, in a sense, writing a tribute to him, too, praising his vision and approach. It doesn’t seem like a purposeful choice Anderson made — if it was, he might have personalized this film sooner.
But considering the overflow of styles, themes, and tales, The French Dispatch might reveal more of its genuine charms on successive rewatches. On a single viewing, however, the film bears little fruit, at least not until the final 20 minutes, beyond seeing the director work his visual magic. For a work that moves to a deliberate beat, that may not be enough for non-Anderson acolytes. The French Dispatch is probably the worst film of the director’s career. But even his worst effort is worth biting the bullet for.
The French Dispatch premieres in theaters on Oct. 22, with a wider rollout Oct. 29.