Movie review: The French Dispatch

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If you are a fan of director Wes Anderson, it will surprise you precisely not at all that there is a great deal of theatrical whimsicality in his latest film, The French Dispatch, or to give it its full playfully long title, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.

The title along should suggest that here is yet another in a long line of imaginative, charming, funny and thoughtfully intense films in which Anderson indulges his love for quirky yet meaningful characters, obtuse but still connect-the-dots narratives, and a visual sensibility that is equally parts dreamy retro and dollhouse cute, suffused with a pastel candy cane of colours that give it a cartoon-ish quality even as it tackles some heavy thematic issues.

That’s the key thing here, indeed with any of Anderson’s films; it’s all too easy to see the playfulness and colourful eccentricity of form and assume there is nothing of any real substance going on beneath the gently frenetic figurative duck-madly-paddling of a storyline.

To an extent that is true of The French Dispatch, as with previous releases like Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which often seems to favour look and feel over a depth of impactful storytelling, and while it’s true that Anderson often gets so caught up in his breathless visual creativity and idiosyncratic narrative momentum to a muddling extent, the film still manages to say some important things in ways that deliver an emotional blow.

The set-up is deceptively simple.

Looking to make his own mark on the world of journalism, Arthur Howtizer Jr. (Bill Murray, an Anderson regular and for good reason; he always feels very much at home in these quirky flights of somewhat weighty fantasy), modelled we are told on the co-founder of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, sets out for France from his home in Kansas for a holiday, accidentally creating on the way a magazine, the titular The French Dispatch, that talks about the world from a wholly distinctive, decidedly non-parochial and delightfully cosmopolitan manner.

While he may treat many other aspects of the operation with benign neglect, Howitzer loves his writers (“These were his people”), all of whom he coddles and treats with the greatest respect, allowing them the freedom to create written art as they see fit, often to the detriment of the magazine as a whole, which must lose ads and other elements to accommodate sprawling, indulgent pieces by its contributors.

Intended, so the immersively fun and fast-moving opening voiceover makes clear, “a factual weekly report on the subjects of world politics, the arts (high and low) and diverse stories of human interest”, the magazine was headquartered in the hilariously-named French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, which looks a nostalgic, quintessential French town sprung colourfully, if predictably, to life.

Like the director, the town has its share of likably odd attributes, awakening almost immediately enmasse at dawn, possessing an asylum and all manner of multilayered homes, jumbled higgledly-piggedly on top of each each other and possessing an eclectic populace who prove to be a rich source of storytelling for the most storied and foible-rich writers of what looks to be the early-to-mid twentieth century including Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), all of whom are inspired by real-life journalists.

The French Dispatch is, if nothing else (and it is a great many weirdly wonderful things), a love letter to the art of writing, to journalism and to the creative pursuit of a story which can consume and become all encompassing, often blurring the lines between subjectivity and objectivity.

For that reason alone, it is worth watching to see how these writers, all of whom can’t help but become entwined, some more than others, on the subjects, about which they’re writing – there is much fun had with the idea of journalistic distance, especially when we meet Krementz – devise and create their stories, all of which, with a few critiques, are embraced by Howitzer almost without question.

Comprised of three main “short stories”, held together by scenes from the magazine’s bustling office which is as gleefully quirky as the subject it faithfully documents, The French Dispatch is really four movies in one, an overarching look at the world of magazines with deep dives into the three of the stories that go into what turns out to be its final issue (quite why is best left to the viewing).

Featuring an eclectic ensemble of actors which, apart from those already named, includes Benicio del Toro as a murderously incarcerated avant garde artist, Timothée Chalamet as a studen revolutionary with a love of chess and older women and Léa Seydoux as a buttoned-down aslyum guard and muse to del Toro’s artist, and a pleasurable host of others, The French Dispatch is a giddy joy for the most part, although it does lose it’s way a little in the final two stories which don’t have quite the punch of the first.

The meandering nature of the stories is one of the film’s great joys, reflecting not only the messy contrariness and unpredictability of life, but also Anderson’s predilection for letting stories go where they will, mirroring of course the inclination of the magazine’s writers to do the same.

Again, you shouldn’t mistake likeable rambling for a lack of cohesion or meaning and indeed even when the stories seem to be going nowhere in particular, they always have a point to make, some more clear-cut than others.

Still, there are times, even if you enjoy things go all over the place narratively and visually, that you wonder just where it’s all heading and your attention does wander a little.

Overall, though, the film is a glorious piece of experimental fun, a movie which is as much a love letter to film as it is to writing, which invests a surprising amount of humanity into its interlinked stories which sprawl over almost two hours of compellingly offbeat storytelling, all told with Anderson’s customary wit, love of richly colourful aesthetics, and characters so memorable they will live on in your memory long after you have turned the last figurative page of The French Dispatch.

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