the french dispatch
directors: wes anderson (the royal tenenbaums, the grand budapest hotel)
starring: tilda swinton, benicio del toro, frances mcdormand, and jeffrey wright
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional twentieth century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in "The French Dispatch Magazine".
The French Dispatch is something of an anthology film written and directed by Wes Anderson with the help of many of his friends and regular collaborators, some of whom both assisted with story development and starred in one of the three stories the film revolves around. Such collaborative effort in an Anderson film has become almost a trope of his, along with the strong visual style that become increasingly realised over the director’s career, paired with elements of whimsy and lightheartedness.
However, The French Dispatch marks a kind of subversion of this shorthand, with the film delving into darker territory thematically and narratively than one would immediately expect. This tonal shift away from Anderson’s earlier work, combined with his visual aesthetic style and flourish make The French Dispatch a intriguing new entry into the director’s body of work.
Dispatch’s stories revolve around the French foreign bureau of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper, known as “The French Dispatch”, whose editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) dies suddenly of a heart attack. According to Howitzer’s will, the bureau was to be dissolved and the newspaper discontinued, with the final issue serving as, among other things, an obituary to Howitzer. The old stories that are republished in this edition serve as the anthology entries that are explored in the film, though we experience their events in the moment with the journalist Howitzer tasked to report those stories.
Through J.K.L. Berensen’s (Tilda Swinton) reporting, we explore the life of a gifted artist (Benicio Del Toro), confined to prison indefinitely for multiple homicide, who is given a new lease on life by his prison guard muse (Léa Seydoux) and exploited as a cash cow by an irascible art dealer (Adrian Brody). Through Frances McDormand’s Lucinda Krementz we explore the experiences of student revolutionaries, headed by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) as they attempt to navigate the injustices of the world and place their desires to change them. Through Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) we explore the ordeal of the kidnapping of the son of the Police Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). All of these stories are tied back to the newspaper by moments that the journalists recall with Howitzer before their pieces were published, exploring his influence on their lives, as an editor, a mentor and friend.
Every element of The French Dispatch is filled with such detail that will reward multiple viewings, be it by something in a shot or tableau that you missed the first time, or by absorbing fully a line of dialogue initially unheard. This is partially due to the film’s pace - everything moves very fast as a lot of ground is covered quickly, be it the plotting or speech from any of the actors, which can make it feel a little hard to keep up, especially when the film switches between English and subtitled French. However, this slight element of challenge feels quite rewarding when you’re following in step.
The French Dispatch is both more of the lush, detail oriented style that Wes Anderson has come to be known for, but separate from his more recent films in terms of tone and subject matter. This marks Dispatch as an interesting entry in the director’s body of work - still exhibiting the traits of intrigue, charm and whimsy, but punctuated by a shift in tone towards the serious.
Punctuated by a shift in tone towards the serious but still exhibiting Anderson’s traits of intrigue, charm and whimsy, The French Dispatch is an intriguing new entry into the director’s body of work.