Who? An assembly of acclaimed journalists. What? The overseas outpost of an American publication. Where? The fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. Why? Never ask a person why. Wes Anderson’s new comedy-drama, The French Dispatch, encompasses everything audiences treasure about the director’s distinct, whimsical style: elegant cinematography, charming characters, whip-smart humor and of course, precocious children. The film (inspired by the The New Yorker) explores a diverse collection of stories to be published in The French Dispatch magazine, composed by an eccentric group of journalists: Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), and chief editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The movie is broken up into four separate narratives (based on articles) under each section of the magazine: local happenings, the arts, world politics and gastronomy (food).
Local Color: “The Cycling Reporter”
Marking his eighth appearance in Anderson’s oeuvre, Owen Wilson returns as the environmentally mindful Herbsaint Sazerac. Cycling along the cobbled streets of Ennui, Sazerac reports on the seedier workings of city life: colonizing rodents, rowdy delinquents, pick-pockets, and perhaps the greatest menace of them all, the elderly. And while these sordid elements of urbanization weren’t necessarily asked for, the chipper reporter (in Wilson’s trademark Texan accent) aims to shed light on their peculiar charm.
Arts and Artists: “The Concrete Masterpiece”
While viewing a rather forgettable gallery organized by Ennui prisoners, art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) stumbles upon a most profitable discovery: the work of talented artist and certified insane convicted murderer, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). However, the very piece that catapulted his likeness into the ranks of distinguished artists would cease to exist without the spellbinding prison guard turned muse, Simone (Léa Seydoux). Rosenthaler’s unlikely story, narrated by a saucy Tilda Swinton as J.K.L. Berensen, is one of unrequited romance, bribes and prison riots, failure and the reward of success. Brody’s comic delivery as Julien is hilarious, although the true highlight of “The Concrete Masterpiece” is Seydoux’s captivating performance as Simone.
Politics and Poetry: “Revisions to a Manifesto”
Swept up in the tear-gassed chaos of a teenage revolution, Lucinda Krementz, played by Frances McDormand, grapples to maintain journalistic neutrality, if it exists. Meanwhile, the arrogant juvenile commanders of the rebellion, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) struggle to agree on anything, repeatedly at odds over the trajectory of a divided party.
In their respective powder puff and muscle conscious debuts, I’m sure we can anticipate Anderson newcomers Khoudri and Chalamet in the director’s future projects. “Revisions to a Manifesto” especially accentuates the film’s compelling soundtrack, including covers of classic French songs and original compositions by Alexandre Desplat. The French Dispatch soundtrack is to be released with a companion album, Chanson’s d’Ennui Tip-Top, by English musician Jarvis Cocker (Tip-Top being the fictional popstar mentioned in the film).
Tastes and Smells: “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”
Tasked with profiling police officer and esteemed chef Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), culinary reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) finds himself caught in the crossfire of an unusual kidnapping. The hostage being the commissaire’s precocious son, stolen for the release of Ennui’s underworld accountant, Albert Abacus (Willem Dafoe). A few ruthless interrogations, stakeouts, gunfire, and animated car chases later, Anderson has basically condensed a full-length action feature into a brief, exquisitely shot featurette. Jeffrey Wright’s narration is mesmerizing, but nothing beats Edward Norton committing a felony in ballet slippers.
While The French Dispatch is entirely fictional, pieces of the film were heavily influenced by the standout journalists and reporting published in The New Yorker throughout its history. Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) represents Harold Ross, the magazine’s co-founder and first editor. Herbsaint Sazerac’s avant-garde reporting and truth stretching is akin to the work of Joseph Mitchell. “Revisions to a Manifesto” is based on Mavis Gallant’s 1968 article, “The Events in May,” regarding student protests in France. The movie is brimming with references to French cinema as well: “There are so many things we’re borrowing from. It’s nice to be able to introduce people to some of them,” Anderson told The New Yorker. More than a tribute, The French Dispatch is a charcuterie board of films, music, people and culture to investigate long after the 1 hour and 48 minute feature has ended.
The French Dispatch, while reserved for acquired tastes, is a delightful and thought-provoking film that I’d recommend to any cinematography appreciators, students taking French for their world language credits, and (insert celebrity here) fans. A warning: the movie might require additional viewings, as the dialogue and visuals are basically impossible to keep up with at times (trust me, I saw it thrice). And if after the movie you’re embittered by the iota of screen time featuring Ed Norton, and disagree with everything I had to say, I assure you: I wrote it that way on purpose.