As I left the United Artists movie theatre and walked back to my car on that windy and chilly October afternoon, I found myself lost in a sea of mixed emotions and thoughts, which compounded by my adoration for Wes Anderson’s style, made this review an ordeal to write.
As I sat at my computer, I remembered what Bill Murray’s character said to Jeffrey Wright’s character in the film: “However you go about it, try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
Directed by Wes Anderson and produced by Indian Paintbrush and American Empirical Pictures, “The French Dispatch” follows Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the editor of a New Yorker-esque magazine. “The French Dispatch,” based in a fictional French town and his staff of American expat journalists — Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). The movie is somewhat out of order, as shortly after Murray’s character is introduced, he dies, and the magazine is set to produce its last issue before ceasing production permanently. From there, the film jumps back in time to follow these journalists as they tell the stories of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), an insane artist and his muse, Simone (Léa Seydoux); Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), a student revolutionary trying to publish his manifesto; and Nescaffier (Stephen Park), a chef in service of the chief of police, The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalr).
As with all my reviews, I will try to break down the elements of the film and analyze the narrative, performances, cinematography and mise en scène.
The narrative is one of the biggest elements of “The French Dispatch,” but I wouldn’t call it narrative-driven. As the film winds its way through the portmanteau of each of the four stories, it is difficult to establish a lasting report with each of the characters. Each of these four stories present their characters in such tight and encapsulated worlds and move at such a pace that it leaves the audience wanting more. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as this style of narrative structure makes the audience feel more compelled to become invested in scrutinizing everything about these characters and the worlds they all inhabit. This is the kind of film that rewards more than one viewing. While the movie is less whimsical in tone than the rest of Anderson’s works, through its fictional cast of journalists and the subjects of their articles, it depicts a kind of charming realness that makes the story less inscrutable.
As for performances, if you have seen any of the director’s prior works, then you know how he favors using ensemble casts. The individual performances on display, brief as they are being an ensemble cast, all feel natural. The talent on screen takes characters whose traits and backstory could fit neatly on a napkin, and brings them to life in a way that makes each of the stories feel as though they could take center stage in their own movies.
One thing that Anderson is constantly criticized for is for having “style over substance,” but here, as with the rest of his works, his eye for detail is nothing short of striking and thus makes his style just as important as substance.
The cinematography and mise en scene of any Anderson film is paramount as they all culminate in visually gorgeous movies. With each chapter of “The French Dispatch,” Anderson uses all his usual camera tricks, such as symmetrical and dolly shots, one-point perspective, close-ups, and camera pans. While not anything new for the director, these tricks are what make his style of camerawork so attractive. It shows how he is constantly able to draw the viewer in and create a sense of scale, but also intimacy with the subject. One big change with his normal style is clever use of black and white film to display his influences from other cinema, namely the “French New Wave.” He also creates a historical pastiche right down to the costume design. At times, he breaks to sequences of color, which bring a kind of emotion and feeling that makes each of them memorable as a kind of live action tableau. The director even uses cartoon animation in the last act, which looks like a New Yorker illustration, creating a sense of charming storybook that keeps you entertained.
The French Dispatch is nothing short of a love letter to the New Yorker and journalism of the past. As McDormand’s character says in the film, “I shall maintain journalistic neutrality, if it exists.” While the film does question if such neutrality exists, it also serves to extol the esprit de corps of storytelling, which is what journalism stems from. While it may not be as good as the “Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The French Dispatch” is a wonderful film and one of the best of the year.
Kelly Baker is an alumnus of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.