The French Dispatch Review: A Mag Gag

Oh, how I hope print magazines endure so that generations of audiences may cherish The French Dispatch. Anyone who has ever published a print mag, or contributed to one, will feel seen while watching this film. The French Dispatch is a whimsical and quirky ode to the romantic bliss of the printed word. It’s also a madcap, spot-on commentary about the needlessly difficult quirks of print publishing. Every word counts and, depending upon which character’s shoes one has filled, every word costs too much.

The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson in his most whimsical, quirky, and Andersonly spirit. This film is for those who cherish the smell of new ink, the pungent aroma of damp well-read books, and the colours that fade with age on paper when digital ephemera disappear to the black hole of defunct servers. Put your best homemade press card in the band of your fedora. Hop on your best scooter. And breeze on down to the local nickelodeon to see Anderson’s latest in its grand, offbeat, charmingly cinematic wisdom.

 

The Final Issue

Anderson publishes a love letter to the old school ways of storytelling with The French Dispatch. The film adopts the form of the titular magazine as it flips through the pages of its final issue. The publisher of The French Dispatch, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) has kicked the bucket. According to his obituary—also his last will and testament—his final wishes are for his departing words to be the mag’s last.

Anderson, like Howitzer, clearly knows that a good magazine is not all about the cover. It’s about the guts. The heart of Howitzer’s last testament breezily comes to life as The French Dispatch explores each story he painstakingly shepherded through publication.

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The early pages are the light stuff. Anderson certainly gets the politics of placement. The French Dispatch first offers local flavours as it whizzes through the goings-on of the drolly-named Ennui-sur-Blasé, France that the publication calls home. Travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) peddles around town while waxing poetic about Ennui past and present. (Plus ça change, peut-être?)

This short 300-word vignette is really just a lark for Anderson’s visual panache. The French Dispatch follows Anderson’s fondness for constructing stories around scenes and settings. Production designer Adam Stockhausen conjures vivid French frescoes and gaily crooked streets. The publishing house could just as easily be formed from cardboard and construction paper as it is mortar and bricks. Each scene is a storybook illustration as the writers conjure distinct locales through their romantic ways with words. There’s little Hemingway-sparse prose in the pages of the Dispatch—it’s a dandy doodle of adjectives and descriptors.

The French Dispatch | Searchlight Pictures

The Features within the Features

The French Dispatch then flips through the meatier articles as Howitzer frets about skyrocketing word counts. He debates with his team—story editor (Fisher Stevens), legal advisor (Griffin Dunne), copy editor (Elisabeth Moss), proofreader (Anjelica Bette Fellini)—and debates which article to chop. In the true spirit and RuPaulification of millennial communication, Horowitz opts for a triple shantay. They all stay.

It’s touching to see that Anderson knows how even a cranky penny-pinching publisher—I really felt seen while watching this film—truly cares for writers. There’s fine prose worth saving and finessing here! One just assumes The French Dispatch reads as well as it plays.

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The first story is a grand retrospective of art, love, commerce, and betrayal. Art critic J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) delivers a doorstop of an overlong and over-budget article about the birth of modern art. As a caftan-clad Swinton lectures about Berensen’s story and subject, the film relishes the joy of history well told. It’s a tale 20-year in the making as Berensen’s “The Concrete Masterpiece” chronicles the genesis of mad artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). Rosenthaler paints modern impressions of his muse, guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), as she models nude in near-acrobatic poses.

Berensen deliciously unspools the story with intellectual vigour. She tells how an inmate, Cadazio (Adrien Brody), saw the future of art in Rosenthaler’s goopy pink swirls. People come and people go throughout the maximum-security pen that Rosenthaler makes his studio as Cadazio gives the convicted murderer means, motive, and opportunity to get his revenge through the loony business of art.

The spirited casting of this lark is especially novel, but Swinton’s knack for oration and her dramatic flair jive fantastically with Anderson’s gift for gab. If the “The Concrete Masterpiece” were a book, one would devour it cover-to-cover.

 

Pièce de résistance

Art, politics, love, and storytelling collide in The French Dispatch’s next beefy essay, “Revisions to a Manifesto.” Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) types her prose with nary a hint of romanticism despite her essay evoking themes of young love. She recounts the story of young revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) as he leads his comrades in a battle against Ennui. As she begins her unlikely affair with the young man with the Dylan-esque tousled curls and ratty mustache, The French Dispatch considers how revolutions are not won, but articulated.

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Krementz somewhat struggles in the pacing of her story as “Revisions to a Manifesto” offers tonal continuity to “The Concrete Masterpiece,” but doesn’t quite match its effervescent spark. The pitfalls of anthology-style films are therefore much like those of magazines. Some articles in the TOC are simply stronger than others are. McDormand nevertheless is seasoned fun as the no-nonsense essayist, and Anderson shrewdly harnesses the observational style of her naturalistic acting. Chalamet clearly seems to be enjoying himself as the awkward idealist, and he makes a fine duo with McDormand even when the story’s energy sags.

Despite the shift in authorial voices between articles, though, Anderson keeps both essays within The French Dispatch’s house style. He and cinematographer Robert Yeomen run the gamut of French cinema in each tale. Shots alternate between New Wave-y black-and-white ponce and the eye-catching colour palettes La Chinoise. Aesthetics differ in mere shot/reverse shot dynamics, alternating colours, aspect ratios, and grains. This conceit stimulates one’s inner film geek—issues of The French Dispatch must be replete with footnotes—but is also a bit disjointed and discombobulating. A fine editor, so to speak, might have given each chapter of The French Dispatch a distinct yet unified voice, rather than a mishmash.

 

The Final Course

Things are most cohesive in The French Dispatch’s food column, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) turns his noodle about a gourmet prison dinner turned crime caper into a fine tribute to the Dispatch’s late publisher. Wright appears on a talk show and revisits his career with this one story ranking among his finest work. It’s a loony tale about a prison chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park), who deserves a Michelin star for the extravagant grub he whips up for Ennui-sur-Blasé’s Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). However, rogues led by Edward Norton rudely kidnap the Commissaire’s son before dessert. Wright finds himself penning true crime reportage, a touching father-son fable, and a Pulitzer-worthy food review that articulates death’s tasting notes.

Anderson structures this story similarly to “The Concrete Masterpiece” and its clearly delimited timelines and perspectives. Wright, moreover, matches Swinton as a great orator. Evoking the authority of James Baldwin, Wright’s Wright is a true poet at heart. He really leans in and lets the camera see his soul. He gets it that every great article says as much about the author as it does the subject. Such personal style isn’t for everyone, but when it works, it’s thrilling. Anderson brings the film to a strong finish as he lets Wright command the Dispatch. More heart than humour, Wright’s essay smartly bridges the collective obituary that brings The French Dispatch to its close.

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The Author’s Voice

As far as authors go, though, Anderson’s voice echoes strongest. The French Dispatch is signature Wes Anderson with its offbeat and endearing charm. It’s a romantic ode to the analogue age and the ways of telling stories when readers and publishers favoured long takes over hot takes and deep dives over trendy lists. Like a good editor or publisher, the talents in The French Dispatch are all the best who accentuate his house style. From the sprightly cadenced notes by composer Alexandre Desplat to the clown car of cameo appearances in the spirited ensemble, The French Dispatch is perfect-bound special issue Anderson.

Most notably, this ode to the written word sees Anderson at his wittiest. Every name is a pun, every visual cue contains a reference, and in every story, he offers something of himself. Like Wright’s compelling tale, he knows that a good story is all in the telling. Recognizing the author’s voice—and relishing it—is a great hook that ensures a reader enjoys a story just as much as the one who pens it.

 

The French Dispatch opens in theatres Oct. 22.

Get a second take of The French Dispatch in Jason Gorber’s Cannes review.

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