The French Dispatch:”A love letter to journalists”
To give The French Dispatch its full title, it’s The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. It might seem like a minor consideration but it’s important when it’s a film by Wes Anderson. He is meticulous regarding the tiniest elements of his films. I will make the point that Wes Anderson’s distinctive film style will not be to everyone’s liking. His unique vision will entice and delight you or leave you puzzled about his movies’ quirks and idiosyncrasies.
The French Dispatch chronicles the compilation of an edition of The French Dispatch, an American magazine published in the French town Ennui-sur-Blasé and masterminded by its editor Arthur Howitzer (Bill Murray). He is a blast force of a howitzer by name and temperament. Howitzer is fastidious about sentence structure, correct grammar, the tension of verb tenses, unnecessary repetition and an attention to detail. Expect Howitzer to banish dangling participles, the infuriating confusion of possessive and plural, the collision of subject-verb agreement and the misplacement of semi-colons.
Yet, when it comes to the peculiarities of his cherished writers, he is willing to overlook their eccentricities. The same can’t be said for his office staff. He expects them to offer their opinions but then chooses to bypass their comments as he sees fit. That’s why he’s a howitzer.
The French Dispatch, both the movie and the magazine featured in the movie, is introduced by one short article by cycling reporter Hersaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), an exploration of the backstreets and rooftops of a small French town, followed by three long form articles and then a brief coda.
In Wes Anderson’s own words, ”The story is not easy to explain, [It's about an] American journalist based in France [who] creates his magazine. It is more a portrait of this man, of this journalist who fights to write what he wants to write. It's not a movie about freedom of the press, but when you talk about reporters you also talk about what's going on in the real world.”
Director Wes Anderson speaking to French publication Charente Libre in April 2019
The French Dispatch: A movie about words
In essence, The French Dispatch is a movie about words, their use, their arrangement, their meaning and how they communicate ideas. The words are layered by an abundance of images, animation, black and white film footage, tableaux, voice-overs, narration and extraordinary stories. It is structured like an edition of a print magazine, more like an anthology than a narrative.
The Stories of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
Story #1 “The Concrete Masterpiece” by art critic J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) details the elevation of a psychopathic murderer, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), into a brilliant artist. I must say I can’t resist mentioning Swinton’s dentures as part of her art critic’s persona. The clash between commerce and culture is highlighted by former inmate-turned-art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). The confrontation reaches its crescendo when Rosenthaler creates an artwork that is inaccessible to anybody beyond the walls of the prison.
Story #2 "Revisions to a Manifesto"
Reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand’s ) ingrains herself into the rebellious actions of an uprising led by activist student Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Her attachment to and involvement with Zeffirelli brings into question the nature of journalistic independence and a reporter’s intimate relationship with their sources.
Story #3 “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” by food critic Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), as told to TV host Liev Shreiber, covers a kidnapping through the eyes of master chef and police officer Nescaffier, the prisoner (Willem DeFoe) who precipitates the kidnapping, and an animated chase sequence among a host of other incidents and film techniques. Yes, it’s full-on Wes Anderson. It’s almost overcooked.
I will be cautious about my recommendation for The French Dispatch, not because it has limits to its watchability, rather, because it has a multi-layered structure that can confound anyone uninitiated into Wes Anderson’s world of cinema.
Anderson is an original film creator; he creates high art. But, as I said, it is a film about words. It unambiguously details Anderson’s love of magazines, in particular The New Yorker, it’s fastidious editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, on whom Howitzer is fashioned, and the writers such as E.B. White, Lillian Ross, James Baldwin, Katherine White, and James Thurber. The French Dispatch is almost too luscious in its substance.
Wes Anderson's showcase of characters: art dealers, anarchists, gastronomes, psychopaths, kidnappers, and the unforgivable crime of dangling participles
READ: About The New Yorker
Unfortunately, the reference to the town Ennui also relates to portions of the movie itself. At times, the overwhelming use of its sumptuous film language—miniature sets that blend with live action, intricate props, voice overs, text overlays, and tableaux (living pictures created as stationary, silent scenes containing one or more actors, usually in costume, carefully posed, with props and/or scenery, and theatrically lit) highlight the delights of a Wes Anderson creation, yet, in the case of The French Dispatch, can disengage the viewers.
It sounds odd for me to say that the film conveys a sense of indifference because it is over-loaded with cinematic richness. When your brain is watching the wonderful graphics and compositions within the frames while listening to the detailed articles represented visually and through the soundtrack involving music, dialogue and voiceovers, it ends up smoothing out everything and you end up drifting, even developing a sense of ennui, as in the fictional film’s town Ennui-sur-Blasé, because there is too much to encounter.
The fictional town Ennui-sur-Blasé
Their theatricality may induce a feeling of wanting to follow architect Mies van der Rohe’s maxim, “Less is more”. But that is not Anderson’s style; it would make his films more like anyone else’s. I won’t say The French Dispatch is my favourite film in his collection of films but it doesn’t fail to impress me with his style and individuality. Wes Anderson is unique. His films are striking but do not connect equally.
My suggestion is to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for everything that is Wes Anderson and a storyline that allows the viewer to move through the narrative. For me, it is the pinnacle of Anderson’s films. If The Grand Budapest Hotel is to your liking then you might explore other films in Anderson’s oeuvre. Regardless of your affinity for or otherwise towards Anderson’s films, they exhibit the highest level of artistic integrity and dedication to a distinctive vision just like the real world editor Harold Ross’ dedication to the highest quality stories in The New Yorker.
Editor Arthur Howitzer, his beloved magazine & his cherished writers
The most engaging scenes are the connecting scenes with Arthur Howitzer commissioning the pieces by The French Dispatch’s writers, and then editing and finalising the articles and the brevity and wit of Owen Wilson’s cycling travelogue.
Anderson is one of a handful of filmmakers whose style is immediately recognisable and, for me, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Sun’s richness of visual delights is fabulous. But the articles are a smidge too long and if Howitzer were to edit the movie on Anderson's behalf in the manner he edits The French Dispatch, then perhaps he would have removed some of the content, even visually opulent content, to make it more concise and sharp.
Official Trailer The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
BEHIND THE SCENES WITH DIRECTOR WES ANDERSON & DELIGHTFUL EXTRA STORIES ABOUT THE MAKING OF THE THE FRENCH DISPATCH
For your delectation, amusement and information. These extra clips display Wes Anderson's sense of filmmaking fun. These are extras that don't appear in the movie. Running time is only a couple of minutes for each clip.
WATCH: “The Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” with Bill Murray
WATCH: The French Dispatch Cast Featurette | Searchlight Pictures
READ: The New Yorker Writers and Editors Who Inspired The French Dispatch
READ: The New Yorker Interview: How Wes Anderson Turned The New Yorker into The French Dispatch
LISTEN (PODCAST): The New Yorker Radio Hour, Jeffrey Wright interviews Wes Anderson
BEHIND THE SCENES WITH DIRECTOR WES ANDERSON & DELIGHTFUL EXTRA STORIES
Current Release in Cinemas
The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
Directed by Wes Anderson (2020)
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WATCH: The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Darjeeeling Limited (2007)
Estranged brothers Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) reunite for a train trip across India. The siblings have not spoken in over a year, ever since their father passed away. Francis is recovering from a motorcycle accident, Peter cannot cope with his wife's pregnancy, and Jack cannot get over his ex-lover. The brothers fall into old patterns of behavior as Francis reveals the real reason for the reunion: to visit their mother in a Himalayan convent.
WATCH: The Darjeeeling Limited