Have you seen a Wes Anderson film before? If so, we can cut to the chase. In watching The French Dispatch, you can expect to see quite a bit more of the same from him. If you consider him to be an artistic genius whose flourishes of color and crowded frames delight you, or if you roll your eyes at his twee, over-the-top eccentricities, you need read no further: there’s little in The French Dispatch that’s going to compel you to switch sides. (If nothing else, Wes Anderson is remarkably consistent.) But if you fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, you will find a charmingly disjointed anthology that serves as a quiet ode to the quirky human interest stories of a magazine modeled in many ways after The New Yorker. How charming, however, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Typical of the nontraditional narrative Anderson will embrace here, he begins with an ending: the death of the longtime newspaper editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), who has decreed in his will that The French Dispatch should die along with him, with just one last farewell edition featuring some of his favorite articles from past issues. Over the years, Howitzer served as the intrepid leader of The French Dispatch, a niche magazine originally devised as an addition to the Sunday edition of a Kansas newspaper that would give its provincial denizens an opportunity to catch a glimpse of life in the small French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The town name captures a sense of listlessness that is pervasive throughout each of the stories presented. A town that never changes. A piece of art literally lodged in concrete. A student rebellion fought over the ideals in a half-written manifesto. A chef who has gone so long without tasting anything new that he thrills at the unfamiliar flavor of poison. Ennui, indeed.
Unlike Wes Anderson’s other films, The French Dispatch uses a series of vignettes of various stories from the newspaper rather than one overarching narrative. This has mixed results. On the one hand, it prevents the development of any kind of rhythm, stopping and starting throughout, and makes it all the more glaring when one of the vignettes isn’t of the same caliber as the others. (“The Cycling Reporter,” “The Concrete Masterpiece,” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” are all markedly superior to “Revisions to a Manifesto,” for example.) But on the other hand, freeing Anderson from the constraints of one cohesive storyline allows him to focus on the one thing that he has always cared about more than anything: the visual palette. On that front, The French Dispatch doesn’t disappoint.
From a narrative perspective, however, the film is a mixed bag. There are charming individual performances scattered throughout each of the vignettes, as one would come to expect from the reliable stable of actors that Wes Anderson routinely has at his disposal. Owen Wilson’s matter-of-fact narration of “The Cycling Reporter,” detailing all the unsavory parts of Ennui, France is an underrated gem, a brief ode to the forgotten members of this kitschy French community. Léa Seydoux is breathtakingly enigmatic in her role as Simone, the prison guard who also serves as a nude model for the unstable artistic genius Moses Rosenthaler in “The Concrete Masterpiece.” And Saoirse Ronan milks approximately three minutes of screen time for all that it’s worth, breathing life into a nameless showgirl as she sings an achingly melancholy French lullaby to the young boy she has just helped kidnap in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.”
It is this final vignette that brings actual meaning to the piece, poignantly summing up Anderson’s entire approach to filmmaking. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) is having a conversation with the acclaimed Chef Lescoffier (Stephen Park), who has just gotten a taste of poison. He marvels at how long it has been since he, a master of the palate, has experienced an unfamiliar flavor. It isn’t necessarily pleasant, but is nonetheless intriguing in its sheer novelty. Anderson seems to be making the argument for his approach to cinematic storytelling: with every single shot, he attempts to do something unexpected, to move the camera in an unconventional way or fill his frame to the brim with details. Even if it doesn’t work, it is exciting to watch for the simple reason that it’s something we haven’t quite experienced before. You can criticize Wes Anderson for a lot of things, but you can’t fault the unique visual style to which he commits himself wholeheartedly.