“The French Dispatch” marks director-screenwriter Wes Anderson’s 10th feature film, and it shows mastery of every hallmark of Anderson’s definitive style.
The film frames its narrative within the pages of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, a fictional foreign affairs magazine from which the film gets its title. The film begins with the obituary of the dispatch’s editor and founder Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray. The obituary outlines the paper’s history and premise of the movie: Upon his death, Howitzer requested his staff produce one final edition of the magazine. The movie then brings the final edition of the paper to life through a short travelogue and three main feature pieces.
The film’s disjointed structure allows Anderson to explore variety more than any of his other films have. The framing device of the magazine inherently makes the plot, characters and visuals surreal, and the film’s cinematography shines in its dramatic action sequences. Anderson worked with longtime collaborator Robert Yeoman, who has led cinematography on all of Anderson’s live-action films. Always loyal to his regular collaborators, nearly the entire cast of the film is composed of regular actors for Anderson.
In the first article, titled “The Cycling Reporter,” travel reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) introduces the audience to the world of Ennui-sur-Blasé, the fictional French town that houses and is the subject of the paper.
J. K. L. Berensen, played by yet another Anderson favorite, Tilda Swinton, reports the second narrative, “The Concrete Masterpiece.” The film cuts the story with clips of Berensen recounting the experience of writing the article during a lecture several years later. However, the alternating narrative never feels confusing or disjointed; Anderson uses color and black-and-white sequences to delineate what is within each article and what is occurring outside that narrative frame.
The most compelling of the features is “Revisions to a Manifesto, a feature” which focuses on political correspondent Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her illicit romantic involvement with her subject Zeffirelli B (Timothée Chalamet), which causes her to question the ethics of journalistic objectivity. The script’s deadpan comedy shines through McDormand and Chalamet’s performances.
Finally, the food feature of this edition is reported by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” Wright explains, is the most powerful article he has ever written. Wright is the most poignant of Anderson’s cast of zany expats. He recounts the article years later in a television interview verbatim as a show of his typographic memory, which adds to both his character development and cleverly pushes the narrative of the film.
In one of the most compelling moments of the film, reality completely drops away. A high-speed police chase in the third act is animated in the fantastical style of the illustrations of “The Dispatch” — and of the film’s dynamic poster.
Anderson does not shy away from his stylistic filmmaking and embraces the role of storytelling throughout “The French Dispatch.” Each of the film’s four vignettes allows Anderson to explore distinct world building and visuals without staying too long with any one story. However, this shorter construction of clips means that “The French Dispatch” at times lacks the full character development of some of Anderson’s other films.
Still, “The French Dispatch” thrives on Anderson doing what he does best: creating beautiful, picturesque movies. The film celebrates Anderson’s style and the team of designers and actors he has built and carried across many of his productions. Each shot is perfect and could stand alone as an art piece. Every frame has the symmetrical composition, bold color and opulent sets and costumes that have become synonymous with Anderson’s name.
While perhaps self-indulgent at times, “The French Dispatch” is a movie by and for people who love the medium and artistry of film. Anderson jumps around time, space, genre and surreality; however, “The French Dispatch” does not feel confusing or inaccessible. It is a film that begs to be rewatched over and over in order to unwrap the layers of visual reference, commentary and easter eggs that the audience can easily miss on the first viewing.