Marketing has touted The French Dispatch as Wes Anderson’s love letter to journalism, actually a half-truth. After all, reporting can be as simple as a summary of current events. Still, Anderson is not interested in those who report the world’s news.
Instead, his film is an ode to the kind of storyteller who uses the stuff of reality as a canvas, turning the world into fodder for flowery prose and implied ideas about the human condition.
It’s worth shining a light on these journalists, especially in a modern age where this kind of storytelling is pitted against algorithm hunters and fake news opponents who reinforce the prejudices of their audiences. While the film makes good use of Anderson’s stylistic strengths, it also threatens to overload itself with too much good material.
The French Dispatch is structured as a sort of anthology film, chronicling articles from the titular publication’s last issue, which became its final due to the sudden death of its editor (Bill Murray).
After a brief introduction about the changing French landscape of the 1970s by a bicycling Owen Wilson, the film moves into a rhythm in which the content of three articles is presented through reporters’ stories.
An art journalist (Tilda Swinton) lectures on the artistic genius of a convicted murderer (Benicio del Toro), his muse, a corrections officer (Léa Seydoux), and the art dealer (Adrien Brody) who wants to make a fortune off him. An investigative journalist (Frances McDormand) goes deep with the leader of a youth protest movement (Timothée Chalamet) and his main adversary, a conflicted character obsessed with his pocket vanity (Lyna Khouri).
A food critic (Jeffrey Wright, deliberately conjuring the ghost of James Baldwin in the film’s best performance) narrates an investigation into “police cooking” by the remarkable Nescaffier (Stephen Park), which leads to a kidnapping of the police chief’s son and ends in a wild chase.
Each of these stories provides ample opportunity to showcase Anderson’s precisely calculated cinematography. The composition of the footage in Dollhouse allows for frames of a specially staged diorama, with the camera sweeping past frozen props and actors. Monochromatic cinematography brings the colors to life, while specific passages of sensory impressions illuminate the author’s narrative language.
Witty banter goes hand in hand with slapstick and visual gags that follow one another so quickly that you don’t catch everything at once. And it all works to the advantage of a film that emphasizes the raw humanity of its characters, even when their reality is so exaggerated that you can’t help but realize that these supposedly actual events are made up.
There is, however, a fundamental problem with the construction of The French Dispatch that prevents the film from reaching the same level as Anderson’s work. Perhaps Anderson is simply unfamiliar with the anthology format. Still, in the absence of a coherent line between stories aside from Bill Murray providing occasional editorial insights in the form of shots, the film relies heavily on Anderson’s penchant for flashy voiceover narration to highlight the thoughts and experiences of individual writers as they report.
On the surface, these voiceovers represent each writer’s text. Still, the constant barrage of such dense material atop Anderson’s already dense visual composition can mean that the sheer amount of stimulation at any given moment is exhausting, to the point where it’s tempting to let the film mindlessly swamp you in a wave of pretentiousness.
He also points out that Anderson’s characters, when given a monologue, find it difficult to break out of some default cadence, which is a fatal flaw for a film that aims to explore three different journalistic voices with different narratives styles.
However, this probably means that The French Dispatch is better suited for episodic viewing, even if the film doesn’t reach the two-hour mark. The film’s content is as rich and poignant as anything Anderson has done before, so the reductive assessment that Wes Anderson fans will enjoy the movie is undoubtedly still accurate. But one wonders if this chapter of his life