The latest film from iconic director Wes Anderson comes in the form of The French Dispatch, a series of short stories published by an American Newspaper company based in a French city. While the film doesn’t have a singular story at his heart, but rather a collection of stories, this only provides much more scope for what makes a Wes Anderson film special. It’s almost a Wes Anderson film on crack. But at the expense of a story, its hard to put it up there with the greats, such as The Royal Tennenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn with the latter as the setting for each film is quite similar, a provincial city in the 20th century, driven by wild characters, an extensive cast list and absolutely drool-inducing cinematography. However, what The Grand Budapest Hotel has over The French Dispatch is a gripping and engaging espionage-style story about a painting.
The film begins with the death of the magazines editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), who’s last will and testaments states that upon his death there will be only one issue of The French Dispatch released and therein will be four specific stories. The four stories are what make up the rest of the film.
The first story is “The Cycling Reporter” which sees Owen Wilson cycling through the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé – the town where all of the stories take place – while making comments about the various areas of the town and how it hasn’t changed much over the years. This is a tribute piece to New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and the shortest of the four segments.
The second story, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, is about a convicted criminal in the Ennui prison who is a deeply talented and horrifically tortured artist, played by Benicio Del Toro. His muse is a prison officer played by Lea Seydoux who poses nude for him to paint. His story is told to us by a local art dealer, J.K.L Berenson (Tilda Swinton) who is giving a lecture on the artists life to an unseen audience. He becomes a successful artist upon his release from prison, but is still mentally deranged and unstable.
The third story, “Revisions to a Manifesto”, stars Timothee Chalamet as Zeffirelli who is a student in the town of Ennui who becomes a revolutionary and creates a manifesto for his followers in their uprising. Zeffirelli has a brief affair with journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) but discovers that fellow revolutionary Juliette is in love with him. Filmed mostly in black and white, this segment nods towards French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
The fourth and final story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is about Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) a food journalist, and his experience at a dinner part held by Police Luitenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park) who’s evening is interrupted when one of the other officers sons is kidnapped by an Ennui gang, led by The Chauffeur (Edward Norton) who hold the child to ransom for the release of an imprisoned, underground accountant – The Abacus (Willem Defoe) who has all the gangs financial records and details.
Each of the stories plays out in true Wes Anderson style and not only pay tribute to the many writer and editors of The New Yorker, but also playfully homages french filmmakers and periods of cinema history. It serves almost as a love letter to journalism and 20th-century cinema than it does anything else. The cast list is anyone you’d expect to see in a Wes Anderson film, and then some. He is one of the top directors to work with in the business and while he must have the regular faces on some kind of life-long retainer (Murray, Norton, Swinton, Defoe) there are so many other brilliant cast members who breathe life into these old stories.
It’s difficult to feel fully engaged in the film throughout because there is no long-term investment within the film. The four stories are interesting, but it’s not always enough to keep you invested in the whole film. The Coen Brothers attempted a similar thing with the Netflix release The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which was based on folk songs, but again it was the same issue. Without everything tying together as a complete story, there isn’t the emotional investment you’d get in a standard feature film.
That said, The French Dispatch is undoubtedly a masterpiece in his creativity alone. The costumes, styling, production design, cinematography and acting are second to none and the Alexandre Desplat soundtrack only enhances the beauty of every single frame. What it lacks in story it more than makes up for everywhere else, making this a highly enjoyable, lightly entertaining Saturday night movie.
Catch The French Dispatch on HBO Max from Friday 25th February!
About The Author
As an HBO Watch writer since 2013, I have covered a wide variety of shows from Eastbound and Down to Game of Thrones. I am also a huge Stanley Kubrick enthusiast having written my undergraduate thesis on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Outside of the world of film and TV I am an avid baker and teach 16-18 year olds how to use cameras.