Following the death of the founder and editor of the magazine, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the journalists and workers of the small organization follow Arthur’s orders to immediately discontinue the journal after one special farewell issue. The French Dispatch presents the final issue visually, which includes a brief introduction to the town. This is accomplished in the form of three stories written by the most distinguished (as considered by Arthur) writers of the establishment, and then an obituary mourning the death.
The first part, titled “The Cycling Reporter”, shows Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) tour and report on various parts of the fictional Ennui-sur-Blaise, introducing the quaint but charming French town, where all the stories take place. The first story of the issue, The Concrete Masterpiece, is the first long part of the film that depicts the reporter J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton) recounting the life of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), who is a mentally disturbed genius serving a prison sentence for double homicide. Having painted substantially prior to this, Moses continues his art inside the penitentiary with Simone (Lea Seydoux), a prison guard, as his model and muse.
An art dealer, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), stumbles upon Moses’ abstract nude painting while in prison himself and offers to buy his works. Once outside, Cadazio puts up Moses’ works and transforms him into a sensational artist in the world. However, having not received any work from Moses for three years since then, he threatens to bring a mob of art critics, collectors, and fanatics into the prison to see his works, and in turn, Moses and Simone promise to present their best work till date.
The second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto” shows a student revolution taking place in Ennui, which is undoubtedly a nod to the student uprising of May 68 in Paris. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reports on a revolution headed by the students and youth, with Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), two self-proclaimed leaders. Lucinda gets to know young Zeffirelli through connections with his parents and has a stint of romance with him. Despite wanting to maintain “journalistic neutrality”, she helps Zeffirelli in writing a manifesto for their revolution.
The third story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” has Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recount his experience of visiting the police commissioner of Ennui (Mathieu Amalric), for dinner prepared by the renowned chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park). However, the commissioner’s young son, Gigi, is soon discovered to have been kidnapped, and Roebuck becomes a part of the operation to find and rescue the young boy.
Like all of Wes Anderson’s creations, the filmmaking and style of approach in The French Dispatch are as important, if not more, to the viewing experience as the narrative. Marked by frontal scenes which showcase grand buildings or streets, which appear to have no depth at all, the two-dimensional comic-book visual style of Anderson continues directly from his last feature-length film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is often accompanied by the sideways tracking of the camera, sometimes through objects and walls of the set, and the camera further explores and introduces the space in this manner. The director’s meticulous obsession with centrality with regards to objects in his frame also continues and serves as a central theme in the visuals.
The use of color is done interestingly, as The French Dispatch keeps shifting between black-and-white and color, with most of the retellings and recounting of experiences shown in black-and-white. However, while scenes of the past are in monotone, there are sometimes interjections of color frames as well, which might be possibly interpreted in multiple ways but in the first glance seems to have been done when there is a significance of color with respect to the element(s) in the scene. Being a film with varying tones and themes from death, madness, romance, and adventure-thrills, the music score works exceptionally, creating a brilliant setting for each of the parts and the overall as a whole.
Being a film very directly about reporters, magazines, newspapers, and everything print media, the visual aesthetics also resemble that of print media. Texts appear frequently on screen, with every part or article titled and the name of the writer mentioned, and the entire presentation is like that of a magazine. There are a few stop-motion sequences as well, Anderson being an avid practitioner of the format. Many of the illustrations and an entire animated action sequence in the final story are bound to remind one of the illustrative styles of the celebrated comic book reporter, Tintin created by Herge. The reference is a direct tribute and inspiration in the film.
Another inspiration that it takes from comic book aesthetics is the use of what can be called pretentious or fake freeze frames. While the film intends to show a particular scene (mostly ones with the most physical action in them) with the characters frozen, as happens in action-comic book panels, the camera keeps rolling showing the characters as they pretend to be standing still in action.
If one considers a serious tribute to reporters and journalists across history, then Wes Anderson’s film is undoubtedly over-simplified and probably has very little connection to the real-world profession. However, The French Dispatch makes no attempt at seeming to be too realistic and the crux of its comedy is in the absurdities of the brilliant reporter-characters and all that they encounter. All of this presented in the erratic filmmaking style of Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch, is indeed difficult to explain in words. But it is a visual treat that every film enthusiast should experience at least once.
In essence, the film’s ensemble cast of brilliant performers and the unusual visual and narrative style of Anderson’s meticulous filmmaking makes The French Dispatch a compelling watch.
The French Dispatch is a 2021 Romantic Drama film directed by Wes Anderson.