Wes Anderson pulls out all the stops in this love letter to, or, more aptly, obituary for, print journalism. A “Who’s Who” of actors, the film is also a “Who’s Who” of references (do you recognize Bernard Berenson, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, James Baldwin, to name 3 of more than a dozen?) and a primer in film techniques: black and white, freeze frame, animation, vaudeville, noir.
A fictitious French town with the not-so-subtle name of Ennui-sur-Blasé (in case one reference to world weariness is not enough) is the locale for “The French Dispatch,” a magazine created after World War II as a supplement to the Liberty, Kansas “Evening Sun.” The editor (Bill Murray), whose death, paralleling that of the magazine, opens and closes the film, is a now-rare breed, a protector of his writers. He cuts the masthead and advertising rather than kill a story; he tolerates a journalist who produces nothing.
In each of four main segments, an article by one of the magazine’s writers is brought to the screen, evoking the days when U.S. newspapers, even those in smaller communities, had foreign bureaus and reporters. This is a nostalgic look at an era when the world was imported to America by individual reporters crafting dispatches from the field.
Benicio del Toro, in the second segment, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” is the insane artist Moses Rosenthaler, inspired by his jailer cum muse, a Nazi-like commandant, Simone (Léa Seydoux). Del Toro steals the scene from Anderson’s usual over-the-top antics when, in an unusually low-key black-and-white setting, he turns his rejection by Simone into art. The two lie head-to-head, post sex; Simone emphatically repeats she’ll never love him, and his thwarted emotions turn his vision to color. He asks for paints and canvases (supplied with prison materials, ala Arte Povera) and “invents” abstract expressionism. The segment also features Adrien Brody, credible as the marketer behind the emerging vogue of artistic modernism. This particular story explores the state of modern art, and of the immersion of artists in the marketplace. Rosenthaler’s fresco masterpiece ends up in an art gallery rising from a cornfield in Kansas (the Walton clan’s “Crystal Bridges” outside Bentonville, Arkansas?).
“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” the fourth segment, illustrates the highs and lows of Anderson’s film. Jeffrey Wright portrays—with great emotional reserve and pain—the racism faced by the black, gay writer Roebuck Wright, a stand-in for James Baldwin (and to add a third Wright, Richard too). Steve Park, as the police commissioner’s chef, Lt. Nescaffier—Anderson is not above puns—articulates a theme that runs through the film as he lies poisoned from a rare radish: how does one locate or create the new, the original, and satisfy the need for renewal? Can Americans—in their boredom and blasé-ness—be exposed to a world outside of their own and find it stimulating?
Despite a few pithy references to this theme, “The French Dispatch” is less a philosophical inquiry than a whimsical riff on life. “The Private Dining Room” presents a deeply-felt Baldwin, but it also engages in vaudeville and slapstick with the kidnaping of the police commissioner’s son. Anderson cites several varieties of performance history—the circus strongman, the Keystone Kops, old-style animation—unfortunately to absurd excess, and to the detriment of the more poignant and trenchant story, characteristics of his “The French Dispatch” as a whole.
Two other “articles” round out the script. An initial segment, “The Cycling Reporter,” features Owen Wilson, recalling Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in which he starred. It lets the audience in on what’s coming: “New Yorker” illustration-like settings, pratfalls, humor, and nostalgia to spare. It’s the slightest of the four.
Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet play the odd couple in the third segment, “Revisions to a Manifesto”: McDormand is the old maid writer, whose sadness cannot be hidden behind her assertion that she desires only to live alone, and Chalamet is Zeffirelli, a student at the 1968 Paris barricades (watch for his Feltrinelli-like death at the foot of an electrical tower). Zeffirelli: “We’re on the barricades.” The writer: “I didn’t see any.” Zeffirelli: “We’re building them.” Explicitly taken from a two-part article Mavis Gallant wrote for “The New Yorker,” the filmmaker unabashedly uses Gallant’s prose: “the touching narcissism of the young.”
Anderson closes with the editor’s obituary, and the end credits feature “New Yorker”-type covers that will be a joy to any reader of that weekly. You can play “name that character” or “name that actor” (these may be the fewest lines Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe ever uttered), but “The French Dispatch” must rise or fall as a filmic essay with meaning. It does some of both.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Henry Winkler, Lois Smith, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Anjelica Huston (for starters)
Other Awards: 5 nominations to date, including for the Palme d’Or at Cannes
Country: United States and Germany
Languages: English and French
Runtime: 107 minutes
Availability: In theaters; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet): “I’m naked, Ms. Krementz!”
Krementz (Frances McDormand): “I can see that.”