Review: The French Dispatch, a visual tribute to the written word

Bob Balaban, Henry Winkler, Adrien Brody, Lois Smith, and Tilda Swinton in The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch, from director Wes Anderson, brings a sumptuous feast of visual images, coupled with an all star cast, to a tale about a magazine. The magazine is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. This American magazine, published in France, brought news of the world back to the homeland.

The French Dispatch is about the last issue of the magazine. It’s told as individual stories appearing in the magazine. It’s a tribute to the writers and editors of The New Yorker from the days when it was edited by founder Harold Ross. The characters in the movie represent real writers from the magazine. But I didn’t know that when I started watching.

The film is set in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. (The names of the characters are as funny as the name of the town.) It bounces between shifts in aspect ratio and between black-and-white and color, often in the same scene.

The film is so full of clues and tributes and homages, I almost needed to stop every frame in order to take in all the details – the books piled against the wall, the signs on the buildings, the images on the magazine covers, the words that covered everything.

Plus, I’d like to figure out what Wallace Wolodarsky was reading in his scenes. He never says a word, just leans back reading a book like part of the background.

Scenes with editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) glued the separate magazine articles together. In the beginning he announced that when he died the magazine would disband. Then he worked with his writers on separate articles for the magazine.

The introductory travel pages were written by “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) who went all over the city bridging the past and the present.

Tilda Swinton in The French Dispatch

The first big article was “The Concrete Masterpiece,” written by art correspondent J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). This started as a lecture in Kansas, and evolved into a tale of art and chicanery.

Benicio Del Toro, Denis Ménochet, and Léa Seydoux in The French Dispatch

Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) painted abstract, modern art renderings of a naked prison guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux). An incarcerated art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) saw the art and convinced and his uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler) that they should buy it and promote it as modern art. They wanted more of the same from the growling, uncooperative Rosenthaler.

Cadazio found a buyer for Rosenthaler’s work: one “Maw” Clampette (Lois Smith), from Kansas. When she flew to France to see the new work, they discovered it was frescoes pained on concrete walls in the prison. How you gonna get that back to Kansas, huh?

In the next major magazine article, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) writes about chess champion and revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet).

Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright in The French Dispatch

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” by food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) turns into a kidnapping tale full of excitement and dangerous food from chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park). This story also included a blue-eyed showgirl (Saoirse Ronan) and an accountant called The Abacus (Willem Dafoe).

There were animated sections, in jokes, and underused actors like Elisabeth Moss. Everything about it was goofy – almost a cartoon. The movie didn’t gel for me until the credits started rolling and the names of famous writers from The New Yorker were listed in tribute, along with magazine covers that could have been straight off The New Yorker. Then it all made sense. But up until that point it felt to me like a drug-induced mishmash of ideas.

When I finally realized that the whole film was a nostalgia trip into the love of the written word and the long read in intelligent magazines with great writers, I felt quite differently about the film. I need to watch it again now.

If you’ve read this review and decide to watch The French Dispatch, you won’t be so befuddled by the surreal storytelling as I was. You’re welcome.

You can see the film on HBO Max.

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