“The New Yorker will be the magazine not published for the old lady in Dubuque,” editor Harold W. Ross wrote in the founding prospectus for The New Yorker in 1923. “It will not be concerned in what she is thinking about. This is not meant in disrespect, but The New Yorker is a magazine avowedly published for a metropolitan audience and thereby will escape an influence which hampers most national publications.” The New Yorker, in short, was meant for New Yorkers, or at least a readership of the cultured literary elite, a reputation that largely remains intact today.
The French Dispatch, headquartered in the cheekily-christened French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé and written for an audience in Liberty, Kansas, operates with perhaps a different mandate. But its style—sentences given to length and erudition, colorful character studies of idiosyncratic oddities—feels very much on par with what a regular reader might appreciate most about the New Yorker. Particularly if that reader is one Wes Anderson, whose film The French Dispatch enjoyed an enthusiastic premier at the Cannes Film Festival after a year’s delay. The film pays direct homage to the storied publication and its many renowned contributors, a list of whom appears in the end credit acknowledgements and includes James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, and Harold Ross.
It’s Bill Murray who stands in for a fictionalized version of the last role, a gruff editor-in-chief named Arthur Howitzer, Jr., who so opposes emotion that a placard in his office forbids crying in his presence. Howitzer chairs the writers’ room of the titular French Dispatch, managing a staff that includes J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). In that order, Berensen, Krementz, and Wright each file stories for the ultimate issue of the Dispatch: Berensen, an art critic, pens the tale of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a maximum security inmate whose abstract nude paintings of his beloved warden Simone (Léa Seydoux) garner the attentions of a pertinacious buyer (Adrien Brody). Krementz, meanwhile, chronicles the student revolution spearheaded by an impassioned yet inexperienced revolutionary, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), with whom she also has a rather passionless, and decidedly un-journalistic, affair. And Wright, a food critic, conveys the touching story of Nescaffier (Steve Park), a renowned police chef whose delicate gastronomical sensibilities may be the only way to save the police chief’s kidnapped son.
In a whirlwind of twee, retro colors and quick cuts to animated sequences, Anderson creates the sensation of flipping rapidly through a copy of a very New Yorker-esque magazine, paging through one section after another with a superhumanly economical absorption of detail. Detractors of Anderson frequently accuse the auteur of privileging style over substance, but perhaps The French Dispatch suffers from the opposite deficiency, packing in more substance than can fit into one film. Or perhaps more accurately, three short films, bookended by other general material befitting the publication (both shouts and murmurs, if you will). The anthological structure works to both the film’s benefit and detriment, evoking the structure of a journalistic magazine while also impeding a lasting connection to any one character that a full-length feature of a more conventional constitution might afford. For better or worse, this is Anderson at his most heavily stylized, which may scare off the uninitiated. Yet for those willing to watch and especially those rewarded by watching again, underneath the whizzing, technicolor Rube Goldberg design, there’s an earnest love letter to magazine journalism to be found within the pages and frames of The French Dispatch if one is only willing to read.
Indeed, watching The French Dispatch feels both very like and unlike the act of reading; it’s simultaneously essayistic and fast-paced, spewing esoteric, bookish details at lightning speed. A brief history of the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé is rattled off by Owen Wilson on a bike, as Anderson displays side-by-side shots of the past and present. Whether his audience retains much of this detail is rather irrelevant, as by the end of the sequence, he’s already off to the next race, shepherding in del Toro and Seydoux as the artistically-inclined murderer and his security guard muse. The rollicking pace is occasionally overwhelming, though it goes hand-in-hand with a visual palette that goes down like candy, toggling between the vivid color palettes of Anderson’s animated work to the black and white of the Nouvelle Vague. A few animated sequences pay homage to the New Yorker’s famous cartoons, including a fantastic chase sequence in the third story. The French Dispatch comes equipped with plenty of visual candy, though its substance may venture into the territory of word salad. Though the actors are fairly even in their excellent performances, the vignettish nature of each story and naturally caricaturish reportage do not allow for extended, considered character work. The thoroughly star-studded roster billed on the film, both Anderson regulars and newcomers, also makes for somewhat of a jarring viewing experience; Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, and Saoirse Ronan each make split-second cameos, to name a few.
Yet McDormand, Chalamet, and Wright provide enough of an emotional keystone to ground the film to a more sustained effect. Wright, in particular, is charged with delivering the emotional crux of the film in the last act, when his character discloses to Howitzer an omitted excerpt of an interview with a chef: As Nescaffier rouses from a poisoned stupor, he remarks in awe about the brilliance of tasting a new flavor, unlike anything he’s ever tasted before. It’s a quietly moving moment, a master savant learning something new about the craft he has devoted his life to honing. Perhaps The French Dispatch isn’t an entirely new flavor. But Anderson can’t help but indulge, and neither can we.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on October 22, 2021.