Review: ‘The French Dispatch’

Cate Manning | @catemanning

A glimpse into the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” (Searchlight Pictures)

A love letter to journalism? Not quite. Unless you count the opening shot of a printing press rolling or the frequent murmurings of “journalistic neutrality” from Frances McDormand’s character, Wes Anderson’s latest isn’t an origin story of The New Yorker. It’s not a biopic of Harold Ross either, although Bill Murray’s character is based on the famed editor. 

The film centers on a group of ex-pat journalists covering life in a small French town. Anderson brings the story of this little American newspaper supplement to life via anthologies; three stories (and the bookends) show life in Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictional French town that’s anything but its name. After regularly drawing inspiration from French cinema and culture, it was about time the director paid direct homage to France. 

This familiar company of actors may be more signature to Anderson’s films than his scrupulous visuals. Again, the director is joined by an all-star cast: Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, the list goes on. But there are also newbies like Jeffrey Wright, Timothée Chalamet, and Léa Seydoux, who fall into Anderson’s world with ease. And, like his actors, Anderson’s stylistic motifs — subtle nostalgia, bright colors, meticulous framing — shine.

The three stories, or “articles,” highlighted are part of the fictional publication’s final edition. Anderson’s characters find themselves in an insane asylum, a student protest, and a police officer’s kitchen. Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac acquaints the audience with Ennui before the page turns and writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) chronicles the relationship between an incarcerated artist (Benecio del Toro) and his muse (Léa Seydoux). A student protest turned “Chessboard Revolution,” led by manifesto author Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), is covered by reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). Then, in a television interview, Roebuck Wright (in a poignant performance by Jeffrey Wright) details his attendance at a private dinner prepared by a legendary chef (Stephen Park).

A common criticism of Anderson’s films lies in his character writing. But, if you haven’t picked up on this by now, the director focuses more on world-building than he does character development, and this movie is a perfect example of that. The characters may seem shallow, but the whole world of Ennui is endearing, not twee. While the family dynamic is not as direct as “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “The Darjeeling Limited,” the focus lies on a creative family: a newspaper editor and his writers, and the subjects and stories they come across.

The movie is hard to explain, and it would be pointless to pick it apart. At the core, it’s Anderson pushing the limits of how far he can take his obsessions. But that is what makes this fast-paced — and sometimes over-stimulating — movie enjoyable. Like all Wes Anderson’s work, “The French Dispatch” shows the human experience through the eyes of its idiosyncratic director and his charming world.