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The French Dispatch

As symmetrical, idiosyncratic, thoughtful and delightful as ever, Wes Anderson's star-studded tenth film is one of his best.
By Sarah Ward
December 03, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 03, 2021
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Editors fictional and real may disagree — The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun's Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray, On the Rocks) among them — but it's easy to use Wes Anderson's name as both an adjective and a verb. In a sentence that'd never get printed in his latest film's titular tome (and mightn't in The New Yorker, its inspiration, either), The French Dispatch is the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever Wes Andersoned. The immaculate symmetry that makes each frame a piece of art is present, naturally, as are gloriously offbeat performances. The equally dreamy and precise pastel- and jewel-hued colour palette, the who's who of a familiar cast list, the miniatures and animated interludes and split screens, the knack for physical comedy, and the mix of high artifice, heartfelt nostalgia and dripping whimsy, too. The writer/director knows what he loves, and also what he loves to splash across his films, and it's all accounted for in his tenth release. 

In The French Dispatch, he also adores stories that say as much about their authors as the world, the places that gift them to the masses, and the space needed to let creativity and insight breathe. He loves celebrating all of this, and heartily, using his usual bag of tricks. It's disingenuous to say that Anderson just wheels out the same flourishes in any movie he helms, though, despite each one — from The Royal Tenenbaums onwards, especially — looking like part of a set. As he's spent his career showing but conveys with extra gusto here, Anderson adores the craftsmanship of filmmaking. He likes pictures that look as if someone has doted on them and fashioned them with their hands, and is just as infatuated with the emotional possibilities that spring from such loving and meticulous work. Indeed, each of his features expresses that pivotal personality detail so clearly that it may as well be cross-stitched into the centre of the frame using Anderson's hair.

It's still accurate to call The French Dispatch an ode to magazines, their heyday and their rockstar writers; the film draws four of its five chapters from its eponymous publication, even badging them with page numbers. But this is also a tribute to everything Anderson holds The New Yorker to stand for, and holds dear — to everything he's obsessed over, internalised and absorbed into the signature filmmaking style that's given such an exuberant workout once again. One scene, in the first of its three longer segments, crystallises this so magnificently that it's among the best things Anderson has ever put on-screen. It involves two versions of murderer-turned-artist Moses Rosenthaler, both sharing the boxed-in frame. The young (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) greets the old (Benicio Del Toro, No Sudden Move), the pair swapping places and handing over lanyards, and it feels as if Anderson is doing the same with his long-held passions.

Before Moses' instalment, entitled The Concrete Masterpiece, the picture's bookending story steps into Howitzer's offices in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Since 1925, he's called it home, as well as the base for a sophisticated literary periodical that started as a travel insert in his father's paper back in Kansas. Because Anderson loves melancholy, too, news of Howitzer's death begins the film courtesy of an obituary. What follows via travelogue The Cycling Reporter, the aforementioned incarcerated art lark, student revolution report Revisions to a Manifesto and police cuisine-turned-kidnapping story The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner is The French Dispatch's final issue turned into a movie — and an outlet for both Howitzer's and the director's abundant Francophilia.

Watching travel correspondent Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson, Loki) wheel around Ennui — a place that isn't quite Paris, just as The French Dispatch isn't quite The New Yorker — comes complete with choirboy gangs rumbling seniors, rat-filled tunnels and bodies fished out of rivers. Anderson's love of quaint and quirky details initially shimmers before that, in Howitzer's workspace beneath his comical "no crying" sign, but doesn't stop gleaming for a second. It's there in Moses' success, as aided by his muse/prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux, No Time to Die), fellow inmate/art dealer Cadazio (Adrien Brody, Succession), and journalist JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton, Memoria), who relays the specifics. And, it's clear in the chronicle by political writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand, Nomadland) about a student uprising led by the suitably moody Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, Dune) over accessing girls' dormitory rooms.

Regardless of their amusingly monikered setting, there's nary a trace of boredom or indifference in any of these chapters, all of which ape real New Yorker stories and scribes. So too does Howitzer, as well as Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die), author of the film's third major segment. The French Dispatch layers in themes and ideas as potently and deeply as its visual gems, tortured genius myths and "the touching narcissism of the young" (as the movie itself describes it) all included; however, its Roebuck-focused thread is exquisitely intelligent and affecting. On a TV set, the journalist relays his attempt to write about Nescaffier (Steve Park, Warrior), chef to the local police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric, Sound of Metal), which was derailed by a hostage situation involving the latter's son — and his piece also becomes an outsider's lament.

Whether going monochrome in homage to the French New Wave, pulling off a bravura late-folm long shot, or finding roles for Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man), Saoirse Ronan (Ammonite), Edward Norton (Motherless Brooklyn) and Willem Dafoe (The Card Counter) — plus Jason Schwartzman (Fargo), who also nabs a story credit with the director, Roman Coppola (Isle of Dogs) and Hugo Guinness (The Grand Budapest Hotel) — Anderson does his utmost at every turn. While aided by sublime work by his eight-time cinematographer Robert D Yeoman, regular production designer Adam Stockhausen and frequent composer Alexandre Desplat, the result feels like slipping not only into Anderson's head but his heart, and more so than any other feature he's made. The French Dispatch is a treasure chest for Anderson, his devotees, and lovers of words, France and inventive cinema alike, although it holds zero chance of converting his naysayers. "Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose," is Howitzer's wise advice to his writers, but there's no doubting that every minuscule choice made in this remarkable delight is utterly and marvellously intentional. 

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