The French Dispatch Wes Anderson

The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson is an intricate love letter to transatlantic culture

A review of the all-star ode to 20th century journalism, art and revolution that just premiered at Cannes.

French Dispatch Wes Anderson

The French Dispatch, the new film by Wes Anderson that’s currently in competition at Cannes, reminded me of Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris, a sprawling cinéma-verité ode to the New York Public Library. (Wiseman was at Cannes this year, too, to present his City Hall and give a master class.) Anderson’s film is not a documentary, of course, but like Wiseman’s work, it brims with detail and cherishes oddball characters. Like Ex LibrisThe French Dispatch is an intricate love letter, in this case to American literary journalism (the France here appears from a Midwestern American point of view), even if along the way the film mocks its methods, styles and subject matter. The film runs at almost two hours — a full two hours if you include a nine-minute standing ovation the film got at the Cannes premiere — but even if it was an hour longer, I would still enjoy every minute of it.

The French Dispatch Wes Anderson
The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson

The French Dispatch displays all the usual vivid colours, geometric symmetries, whimsy and irony of an Anderson film, but this time the director spoofs real people and events. The narrative unfolds as an issue of a magazine, a Kansas newspaper supplement, founded in a made-up French small town of Ennui-on-Blasé (shot in Angoulême) in 1925, the same year as The New Yorker. The issue includes a travel column and three features, with a coda of the magazine editor’s obituary. Perhaps Anderson refused to hold a press conference at Cannes in fear that all the questions would be about the links to real people and serials rather than the film itself. The enjoyment of this gem is heightened significantly by knowing its context, in the same way that, in the The French Dispatch gastronomy feature, an aperitif enhances the dishes of Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), a chef to the town’s police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). 

The French Dispatch Wes Anderson
Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne

The film unfolds in intertwined black-and-white and colour scenes. Early on, in a split screen, the two visual modes denote the “before” and “after” of Ennui’s underworld, including prostitutes, pickpockets and rats. This column, by the “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), invites a reading of Luc Sante’s The Other Paris. Sante, who wrote for the New York Review of Books, reclaimed Paris history for its ordinary and non-conformist characters from the celebrities and the bon vivants, here well-represented by the French Dispatch editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), who has a waiter carry his drinks up a cross-section of a multi-story building, a classic Anderson shot.

The French Dispatch Wes Anderson
Benicio Del Toro (centre) and Léa Seydoux (right)

Words create value in the slapstick-filled arts section that describes the meteoric rise of Moses Rosenthaler (a werewolf-like Benicio Del Toro), a homicidal artist whose abstract representations of his prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) sell thanks to art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) and art critic J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). Holding forth in an haut-couture orange gown and extra teeth, Swinton’s Berensen parodies art historian Rosamond Bernier, founder of L’oeil magazine in Paris and a phenomenally popular Metropolitan Museum lecturer. Pair this episode with The Free World, where Louis Menand explains how dealers and critics created market value out of American abstract art on a mid-century network between Paris and New York.

Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet

Anderson’s parody omits political aspects of news reporting, as in the black-and-white rendition of May ‘68, depicted as more of a sexual than social revolution in Ennui. Student leader Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet with poetic wild hair) needs help from newswriter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand, recalling New Yorker’s French correspondent Janet Flanner) to finish his manifesto, in bed after a tryst, and battles the powers that be with chess moves rather than Molotov cocktails. McDormand nails it as a jaded reporter who abandons neutrality and lends her pen to an inter-generational cultural battle. This is how many remember May ‘68 today, but check out May ‘68 and Its Afterlives, where Kristin Ross explains how slanted memoirs and media stories trivialized a massive and consequential workers’ and students’ movement.

Bill Murray and Jeffrey Wright

Eloquence and style, celebrated in The French Dispatch, represent just a thin slice of the 20-century’s turbulent transatlantic cultural scene. But Anderson’s picture delivers because these very qualities became crucial political weapons for the era’s writers. The film concludes with a gastronomic kidnapping caper that draws upon Hergé’s Tin Tin aesthetic and New Yorker cartoons (Jason Schwartzman, who co-developed the story, plays the in-house artist). The narrator, a suave gay black writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), recites his food feature story from memory on a TV show, a key detail. On TV, James Baldwin, with eloquence erudition, and style, won numerous debates on race in America, including his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969 (see also his battle with William Buckley at Cambridge in 1965). “Letter From a Region of My Mind,” the only article Baldwin published in the New Yorker, in 1962, begins by describing his Harlem childhood and remains one of the most powerful arguments for racial equality. Before seeing The French Dispatch, James Baldwin is required reading. ■

The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, starring Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Elisabeth Moss, Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Lyna Khoudri

To read our first report from the 2021 Cannes film festival, please click here.

For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.