“The French Dispatch” rekindled some old memories of mine. Watching it I felt a familiar feeling that took time to place. It was the same feeling I had as a kid reading, or being read, bedtime stories. Sometimes the stories were very wordy, sometimes they were mostly illustrated, a few were comics. The stories that left a lasting impression were the ones that had just a touch of danger or sadness underlining a generally happy tale. Wes Anderson has managed to take that experience, mature it for adults, and transfer it to the screen.
The movie is actually an anthology structured around the final issue of the The French Dispatch magazine, an insert to the local Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper. The issue, and movie, is broken into 5 separate sections, joined by snippets of Editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) as he deals with his beloved array of writers. It starts with an obituary, then a short tour guide, followed by three feature articles.
The obituary, which is for the Editor, serves as an introduction into why this niche magazine exists, the surprising success of its circulation, and why this is the final issue to be released. It’s not very long, but manages to be one of the more creative exposition dumps in recent memory.
A Tour Guide
This guide is the warm-up act to the following features. Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) rides his bike throughout the french town describing all of the places and individuals you would come across at different times of the day. He also touches on some of the history behind various buildings, some still standing, others demolished to make way for more modern structures. His commentary is tinged with comedic disdain and occasional physical mishaps resulting in one of the more traditionally funny segments.
“The Concrete Masterpiece” (Arts & Artists Section)
In an auditorium of art enthusiasts, J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) recounts how their local museum came into possession of a series of modern art frescos painted on reinforced concrete slabs by a convicted murderer. The artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) was discovered by an art distributor, Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who was doing time for a bit of fraud. Julian is taken aback by the “nude” illustration of Moses’ muse, Simone (Léa Seydoux), and offers to buy it on the spot. Once out of prison, Julian makes good on his purchase and begins to promote his incarcerated artist with the hope of selling more of his art. Like most respected artists, Moses is insane and a touch suicidal, so acquiring more art is no easy task.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” (Politics & Poetry Section)
While covering a student rebellion against a mandatory military draft, lonely writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) ignores journalist neutrality and becomes involved with the young man leading the revolution. It’s hard to say why she’s interested in the boyish Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Perhaps she hopes to recapture some of her own youthful optimism, or maybe she’s just passing the time. Unfortunately, this segment feels like it is just passing the time as well. There are a few fun character moments, but the characters aren’t that interesting and most of the quirky humor falls flat making this portion the weakest in the film.
“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” (Tastes & Smells Section)
Anderson saves his most ambitious segment for the finale. Journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) is being interviewed by an unnamed talk show host (Liev Schreiber) about his long career. Roebuck has the uncanny ability to recall every word he’s ever written and demonstrates this by retelling one of his more eventful experiences. While writing for the Tastes & Smells section of the French Dispatch, he was sent to interview a police station chef (Steve Park) about signature cop cuisine. Instead of having a quiet dinner at the station, he becomes entangled in a kidnapping plot, shootout, and high-speed car chase, in which the chef plays a pivotal role. Not only does this segment have the fastest pace, the most action, and an animated sequence, it also has the most heart and insightful dialog. When the host asks Roebuck why all of his writing has featured food, regardless of the subject, it’s hard not to choke up at his answer.
Wes Anderson’s style is well known and often mocked, but it fits so perfectly in this film. The 4:3 framing, which is frustrating in so many other movies is delightfully filled with depth and details to enjoy. Occasionally he’ll open up the frame to show us more or to give us a burst of emotion. Most of the stories are told as black and white flashbacks, but it will switch to color and fill the screen for moments of passion. It’s a perfect representation of those iconic moments in life that are hard to describe with just words. The first time you glimpsed art that changed your world. That first kiss with the one. The endorphins flooding your body after biting into something exquisite.
This is also some of his best writing. Breaking the film into multiple short stories allows him to introduce us to more eccentric characters, hit the core of their humanity, and move on before their eccentricities outstay their welcome. His dialog is layered with emotion, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humor, and glimpses into the characters’ personal pain. As a whole, the main theme of the film is how we use art to express the happiest and most painful parts of our lives. Like most of Wes Anderson’s movies, “The French Dispatch” reflects upon humanity using over-the-top characters and weaves a bedtime story that leaves us smiling but still feeling just a little bit sad.
The French Dispatch