Wes Anderson has established a signature style over the last few decades and The French Dispatch strays little from it, besides prominent usage of black-and-white rather than vivid color for most of the film’s three short stories. Intricate sets, steady camera movement, famous actors spouting lines with such deadpan delivery that most of them sound precisely the same. It’s all Anderson, it’s all here and unfortunately, it’s all a disservice to the type of story he’s trying to tell this time around, specifically the medium through which he’s chosen to tell it. Anderson set out to film a tribute to literary magazines, specifically The New Yorker, and the writers and editors who made the near centuries-old magazine the definitive publication of its type. The film is a celebration of writing, writers speaking unencumbered and the sort of publication that would support them. His script is probably lovely to read, but as a movie, it just doesn’t click. It’s an anthology enamored with its own construction and nothing more.
A prologue introduces the titular Dispatch, a French magazine started by American expat Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), who fled the cornfields of Kansas but never stopped writing back to them. Howitzer has died. A heart attack at his desk, age 75. Upon his death, the Dispatch is to cease publication after a final issue. His writers prepare their final stories, and the film depicts the features of that final issue. Each column is a rumination on life, death and love, told with flowery prose and very little in the way of character or emotion. The telling, not the tale, is Anderson’s focus. They’re odes to writers and the act of writing rather than the power of what good writing can produce.
The first segment is The Concrete Masterpiece. Convicted murderer Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro, with Tony Revolori playing a younger version) falls for Simone (Léa Seydoux), a prison guard who becomes his artistic muse. He paints her nude form in the abstract. Fellow inmate and art collector Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) is taken by the work and becomes Moses’s first patron, using their unique relationship to make oodles of money. The short story is relayed by Dispatch writer J.K.L. Beresen (Tilda Swinton). She narrates from start to finish. There are moments of sweetness between Rosenthaler and Simone, but their affair is sped through and narrated more than it is actually felt. The cleverness, when it comes, is in the language read by Swinton rather than the nonplussed recitations of dialogue by Del Toro or Seydoux. It’s visually clever but painfully empty.
Of the three stories, Revisions to a Manifesto is the best. Dispatch correspondent Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) has avoided romance, parenthood or any responsibility that removes her from her job. Lucinda is a writer first and nothing second. Lonely? Never. Her assignment is to profile a student revolution led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Like most revolutions, it’s first and foremost about sex. The two start an affair. She proofreads his manifesto, finding it overly poetic and not very clear. This isn’t her first manifesto. He takes some umbrage at it, but that doesn’t stop their passion. Zeffirelli is also smitten with Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), who leads the girl’s side of the student conflict. McDormand and Chalamet take turns narrating their character’s perspectives. There’s a moment at the end where Anderson’s blunt language and artificial aesthetic actually accomplish a level of high emotion, but it feels notable not because it’s relatable but rather because feeling anything is a rare occurrence in this film.
Last, and certainly least, is The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, narrated by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), which certainly reads better in prose but feels stilted and emotionless. Unlike the first two, Dining Room is very openly based on the work of James Baldwin and more or less says so outright. There are two jokes to this one. First, this is supposed to be the food column but morphs into an overly verbose crime saga as narrated by Wright. The second is that he leaves out the lone moment of emotion in his essay before a conversation with Howitzer — confusingly featured within the disjointed narrative — results in its restoration. By this time in The French Dispatch, it starts to feel like Anderson is playing a joke with the audience that his storytelling just doesn’t achieve: “These writers we loved … aren’t they wacky, being so long-winded and circuitous, never necessarily getting to the point?” Is Anderson putting an elbow in the ribs of his viewers as he does the same thing? Is it self-aware storytelling or the opposite? It’s hard to tell, but either answer is more frustrating than fun.
What works in prose doesn’t always translate to film. It often doesn’t translate into film. All three stories here are told to the audience rather than experienced by the audience. Flowery dialogue for the narrator pushes the plots along rather than character, emotion or drama. Reading them was probably a lot of fun. The visual experience, although steeped in Anderson’s trademark set design, becomes tiresome and monotonous. The third segment features a lapse into animation that feels less like a coherent creative choice and more like an excuse to depict action in an easier, cheaper way. Otherwise, they’re all very, very similar visual experiences. It’s an anthology by a lone director who does not do much to differentiate his cinematic approach to each piece. Perhaps it should’ve been a magazine.
Watching The French Dispatch with a full audience, it felt notable that the largest laugh lines were tied to the unexpected appearances of famous faces rather than any particular beats. Along with the aforementioned stars, Anderson pulls out his Rolodex of collaborators for parts big and small. Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Henry Winkler, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe … there’s no use listing all of them. That’s what the marketing campaign is for. Rest assured: They all deliver their scant dialogue in basically the same cadence, and the narrator does the work telling you who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposedly showing up to do.
Given the number of big names in small roles, and the general criticism of Anderson’s casts for being predominantly white, it’s also strange that there is only one person of Asian descent in a major role: Stephen Park as Lieutenant Nescafier, the mysterious chef who helps solve a crime in Dining Room. His role fits into stereotypes about the mystique of Asian wisdom. In a film with such an expansive cast, it sticks out.
The French Dispatch is a love letter to an era where writers could write to their heart’s content and the educated were lucky enough to enjoy it together while at dinner parties. That sounds cynical. There’s no denying the talent of James Baldwin or A.J. Liebling. Their writing is definitive. Reporting is an art. Writing is the greatest art. Capturing meaning through the use of words and sentences and paragraphs … it’s a form of artistic transport that has lost some level of social currency as we’ve lost use for anything but brevity.
Anderson, too, is a talented artist, and perhaps the biggest problem with The French Dispatch is that it represents the final stage of a divorce from the casual audience threatened by his last decade of work. One of the reasons Anderson became a popular American auteur in the early-2000s film landscape is because his distinctive style was used to tell powerful stories about grief, loss and love. His movies have always had their detractors, but he’s by and large a populist artist whose work connected with a lot of people because it felt truthful. The coldness of his sets contrasted with the warmth of his heart. There is little warmth here.
Anderson’s inspirations are sound. But film is its own language, one he has displayed a keen understanding of in the past. Not here. The visuals are basically visual tableaus to complement the script he’s so proud of having written. None of the characters comes alive. Three stories about tragic love and no heart between them. It’s an over-written, frustrating collection of stories that are never more than the sum of their lovely casts or the pen who created them. Writing is wonderful, yes, but best when the writer has something to say and a clear idea of how to say it.