Seeing the poster for The French Dispatch, pride of place, by the entrance of The Plaza cinema in Truro, I could barely contain my excitement to see a film that had been substantially delayed due to the pandemic. Witty, satiric, colourful, and creative, The French Dispatch is a film like nothing else I have seen and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
“The French Dispatch” is a supplementary newspaper to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun paper, headed by Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray). Upon Howitzer’s unexpected death, the paper is set to be disbanded with one final edition featuring three re-issued articles and an obituary. From the initial opening scenes and Alexandre Desplat’s quaint opening score, the viewer is immediately catapulted into the vibrant and playful world of Ennui, a fictional French town, bearing all the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson creation.
The film is split into three articles: “The Concrete Masterpiece” (the art section, pages 19-57), “Revisions to a Manifesto” (the politics section, pages 59 to 96) and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” (the food section, pages 98 to 128). We, however, begin with a brief trip to the travel section with Owen Wilson as the cycling reporter, Herbsaint Sazerac. Sazerac takes us on a tour of Ennui, documenting the cats that have overtaken the town’s roofs, the typical number of bodies pulled from the river, changes (and lack of) between past and present, and Ennui’s average snowfall – 190,000 flakes if you were wondering. It’s a charming, irony lined, opening insight that sets up the proceeding stories in a neat and playful way.
Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand bring a wonderful amount of chemistry
From a convicted murderer who has a talent for creating modern art, a student rebellion that starts a “Chessboard Revolution” and a food-tasting turn police assault and gunfight, the film’s stories are certainly distinctive. Benecio del Toro’s troubled painter, Moses Rosenthaler, makes for a captivating epicentre for the first story. This wonderfully absurd tale is further elevated by Léa Seydoux’s performance, becoming an equally captivating muse for Rosenthaler. The camera flicks between colour and black and white and the narrative is interspersed with an off-kilter Tilda Swinton presenting a conference on the life and work of Moses Rosenthal, adding further layers to the world in which the film inhabits.
It is the following section, “Revisions to a Manifesto”, that sees the film dip slightly. The film overall is very fast paced (you are guaranteed to not pick up on every point, quip, and subtlety on a first watch) but I did find myself struggling with this middle section of the film particularly. Rapid French, with even more rapid subtitles, prioritised concentration over attention, which I found detracted from the narrative and so the intentions of characters became muddied and difficult to decipher. Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand, however, bring a wonderful amount of chemistry and repartee to an intriguing story of student rebellion.
a clever, emotive, enrapturing journey that crosses film genres
It is without a doubt that the crowning glory of the film is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”. Roebuck Wright has a typographic memory: the ability to repeat word-perfect anything he has ever read, including his own writing. On a chat-show, he regales the story of when he was invited to Ennui’s police headquarters where one of the best chefs “Nescaffier” prepared a feast of grand proportions and gastronomic excellence. The dining experience soon became side-tracked when the commissioner’s son was kidnapped and so, Wright finds himself embroiled in a campaign to get the commissioner’s son back. For the purposes of spoilers, I will not go into the immense detail I could on the extensive merits of this most wonderful story because that is what it is: a clever, emotive, enrapturing journey that crosses film genres. My eyes were glued to the screen as I didn’t want to miss a single second of the storytelling. Jeffrey Wright does an incredible job of giving his character a multidimensional personality within his section in the film. This story had an extra dose of magic that lifted it above the rest of the film.
The film is not for everyone, although. The couple next to me at the cinema left halfway through – faintly asking the other one if they understood what was going on. It is not the kind of easy, straightforward storytelling that some of us look for in a film. You are not just a passive viewer, but an active spectator made to work, which for me (perhaps as an English student) I loved. I believe that you should watch it for yourselves and decide.
Wes Anderson’s intention was to capture the spirit of journalism in The French Dispatch and produce a love-letter for the profession. In making the film, he created a love-letter to cinema that we viewers can continue to enjoy. If you want a film that feels truly different to the blockbusters that we all see so often, then get yourself in front of a screen and revel in the delight that is The French Dispatch.