The French Dispatch was hotly anticipated because it was Wes Anderson’s first live-action film in eight years, the last being The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that only gets better and better on subsequent viewings. It was delayed for over a year due to that pandemic we all lived through. It was also the first time Anderson had used an anthology format for one of his films, which—given the increasingly sprawling cast lists for each subsequent Anderson film—seemed like a logical cinematic format for him to explore.
The film’s conceit is that the various stories that each episode tells make up the final issue of The French Dispatch magazine, which is very obviously based on The New Yorker. Most of the stories have some basis in real life. The magazine’s editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) dies, and as a part of his will, the magazine must close after one final issue. There are three stories, with the Howitzer story being the wrap-around and a short, amusing travelogue story with Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazera at the start. The stories are what made the magazine and put a spotlight on the man Howitzer was.
Each story is pleasurable, although at times you wish Anderson had just made three films (or done a mini-series) to give each one a little more time to breathe: it’s a fairly short film at just over 100 minutes. Anderson has never made a film that lasted over two hours: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is his longest, with a running time of 119 minutes. This is something he must’ve learned from watching the Coen Brothers’ films, whose The Ballad of Buster Scruggs this film is similar to in tone and format. That also happens to be one of only two Coen Brothers films lasting over two hours, and started life out as a… Netflix mini-series, before they decided to cut it as a feature. Both Anderson and the Coen Brothers are masters of “quirkiness,” but also of perfectly pacing a film—a real skill.
“The Concrete Masterpiece” is the first story, and it’s a very funny send-up of the art world and modernism, with Benicio Del Toro as the incarcerated Moses Rosenthaler, who gets discovered by crooked art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrian Brody). Léa Seydoux plays Rosenthaler’s muse and prison guard. It’s shot mainly in black and white (the film is pretty evenly split between black and white and colour) and, as usual, all the compositions from Anderson are great, although it’s a little looser at times with his trademark and oft-parodied love of symmetrical compositions. It comes in at a madcap pace, and has some of the good old ultraviolence but in ridiculous fashion—one of Anderson’s secret narrative weapons, which is rarely commented on. Tilda Swinton plays journalist J.K.L. Berensen, who writes and appears in the story.
The next segment will no doubt annoy and delight people in equal measure. “Revisions to a Manifesto” is a spot-on pastiche of May ’68 and Godard’s films before and after. Timothée Chalamet plays the pencil-moustached Zeffirelli, an anarchist student who starts an uprising through… chess moves. Relative newcomer Lyna Khoudri makes quite an impression as Zeffirelli’s girlfriend, Juliette, who mocks his manifesto and has the Anna Karina circa 1963/4 look down to a T. Frances McDormand plays older journalist Lucinda Krementz, who is profiling the student activists for The French Dispatch, and of course starts a fling with Zeffirelli. It’s sympathetic to the student revolutionaries, but also mocks their pretentiousness endlessly. It might be the highlight of the film, but maybe on subsequent viewings it will go down in the rankings of best segments, as it’s the most out-and-out silly of the three.
In the third segment, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” Jeffrey Wright plays Roebuck Wright, a character very obviously modelled on James Baldwin with a bit of A.J. Liebling thrown in. This story has its own wraparound, with Roebuck recounting the story on a ‘70s talk show (clearly it’s The Dick Cavett Show) with Liev Schreiber as the host. On my initial viewing, it seemed like a silly caper story. It is exactly that on a surface level. However, on subsequent viewings it seems more poignant, and the whole connection between Wright and Lt. Nescaffier (Steve Park) at the end, which Murray’s editor insists Wright puts back because it’s “heart of the piece,” has a poignancy that I missed on my first viewing, perhaps because I saw it back to back with Titane. Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton also have really fun bit parts here.
The French Dispatch is undeniably the work of Wes Anderson, so it may take a few viewings to unpack all of the jokes and references—and even the casting. I didn’t realise Griffin Dunne was in the film the first time until I looked at the cast list! It’s also a delightful ode to journalists and their editors. The landscape of cinema today needs dreamers and fantasists more than ever, as safe and realistic films seem to be the norm. It’s great for cinema that somebody as singular as Wes Anderson gets essentially carte blanche at this point to do whatever film he wants to make, and is successful. We should always celebrate and support filmmakers who have such distinctive visions. It does help, mind you, that he has famous friends who work for scale and somehow keep his budgets incredibly economical, given how inventive the films look up on the screen.
The Blu-Ray from Disney is available at HMV, and doesn’t have any special features. Given Anderson’s long association with The Criterion Collection, there may be an extras-heavy release in the future. I wouldn’t, however, hold my breath: his last film, Isle of Dogs, is now five years old and still hasn’t gotten one, so you could be waiting a very long time.