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Non-Review Review: The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch is a sweet and sincere love letter to a certain kind of journalistic endeavour, and to the creative process beyond that. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly disjointed and uneven.

To be fair, these structural problems come with the format. Wes Anderson has constructed his latest film as an anthology, one loosely designed to mirror the flow of a magazine like The New Yorker. The film is comprised of an opening obituary, a travellogue, and three short stories, all designed to emulate the structure of reading a classic journalistic magazine. It’s an interesting and ambitious approach to structuring a movie, one not without challenges and one that allows Anderson the opportunity to lean into his already heightened sensibility.

That is a lot of Wes Anderson.

However, as with many anthology films, The French Dispatch suffers from an unevenness in terms of pacing. As one might expect from an anthology directed by a filmmaker as distinctive as Anderson, The French Dispatch does maintain a consistent tone across its various elements, but it also suffers from stopping and starting five times over. It doesn’t help that each of the three stories flows in much the same way, playing on many of the same tropes of Anderson’s storytelling, starting with Anderson’s signature arch detachment and inevitably puncturing it with small glimpses of humanity.

The appeal of a magazine like the fictional French Dispatch is a diversity of voices and perspectives. The film positions itself as a celebration of the individual journalists relating their stories to the audience, finding their own ways into these narratives and sharing something over themselves with the world. However, while the film does afford some shading of the characters themselves in the framing sections and within the narrative, the stories themselves all feel like they are cut from the same clothe. They are even similar in stylistic terms, mostly shot in black-and-white Academy ratio, occasionally breaking that for dramatic effect.

Stu(dent)ing resentment…

To be fair, this isn’t a fatal problem. Anderson remains a director with a strong aesthetic and keen sense of humour. His worlds are elaborately constructed, both rich and textured. For all that Anderson’s rigid formalism can seem twee or arch, his films are often possessed of a real heart, one that is all the more effective for sneaking up on the audience through these otherwise carrefully composed surroundings and often caricatured characters. The French Dispatch is no different. It is a film with charm to spare, and with a genuine heart beneath it.

Still, for all that The French Dispatch is a celebration of artistic freedom and discovery, and a passionate argument for an editorial hand the encourages distinct voices and approaches over one that imposes a consistent style, by the time the third story is finished, it feels too much the work of a singular voice working a familiar framework.

The Wright stuff.

The French Dispatch is built around the fictional publication, a magazine supplement of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. reportedly travelled to France as a student, and fell in love. He built the magazine as a way to “bring the world to Kansas”, hiring a diverse group of writers and artists to celebrate happenings in the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé and report on them for the readership back home in Liberty, Kansas. It’s a somewhat fanciful premise, but an inherently romantic one that speaks to Anderson’s sincerity as a writer and director. He is himself a Texan who fell in love with Paris.

As the premise suggests, The French Dispatch is a love letter to the art of journalism – of both writing and reading. In the space between the two world wars, Howitzer found a way to open a two-way street between the United States and France, to invite readers who would likely never set foot on an aeroplane to visit a whole new world. Indeed, Anderson repeatedly mines the juxtaposition of the artistic sensibility of the creators behind the magazine and folksy Americana of Kansas. At one point, an artistic installation is literally flown into Kansas, so that the magazine’s homegrown readers might appreciate it.

Nothing to report.

For all that Anderson’s visual style can be seen as exaggerated and heightened, there is a real humanity at work in his films. The Grand Budapest Hotel remains one of the most angry and mournful mainstream films ever made about the collapse of Europe into fascism, and the cultural and social cost that such a decline continues to exact from the continent. The French Dispatch earnestly believes in the value of looking beyond one’s own world – whether literally in the sense of sharing stories across the globe or figuratively in the sense of pushing outside of one’s comfort zone.

Indeed, there’s an interesting argument to be made that The French Dispatch exists as part of a new wave of films celebrating the idea of “the American abroad”, perhaps as part of a conscious or subconscious reckoning with the way in which the past few years have greatly impacted the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. Just as with the title character in Ted Lasso, it’s hard not to see the character of Arthur Howitzer Jr. as an export of some of the best American qualities – curiousity, enthusiasm, playfulness.

The editor’s edict.

Played by Andersonian regular Bill Murray, Howitzer is presented as something of a mystery. The film opens in the aftermath of his passing. The first section of the film is an obituary that blends the known details of the character’s life with the mythmaking around him. Howitzer is a man of contradictions – he is fiercely protective of his writers but cruel to the other staff, he is venerated and respected for his work despite seeming to run the magazine deeper and deeper into debt, he is a beloved cultural institution and yet subject to the ignimity and anonymity of “an editor’s funeral.”

Howitzer feels like an archetypal Anderson protagonist, the characters who seems to represent some idealised and nostalgic past that is being fashioned entirely from memory and story. Like Gustave H. from The Grand Budapest Hotel, it might be argued that Howitzer’s world had vanished long before he ever entered it, even if he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace. It’s notable that Howitzer’s last will and testament includes the instructions that his writing staff be fairly compensated and that the magazine be disbanded to the point that the printing presses are dismantled. His passing marks the end of an era.

Sketching a compelling portrait.

Indeed, The French Dispatch is an elegiac film. This makes sense, given the current state of journalism (particularly print journalism) as an artform. The entire premise of the film is that the audience is watching the last edition of the eponymous magazine. One of the smarter stylistic choices in the movie is to open with a tour of offices and homes of the magazine’s writers during that obiturary, framing them in such a way as to emphasise their emptyness. Then, over the course of the film, Anderson repeats the shots by including Howitzer. The contrast is striking. The film opens by acknowledging an absence it shades through memory.

Of course, The French Dispatch is an anthology film. Its three main stories are each quite different from one another. However, particular themes surface through each of them. Most obviously, The French Dispatch is a love letter to the act of creation in its myriad forms. The first of the three stories includes a troubled artist working in the local “prison/asylum.” The middle story features a sincere consideration of student protest through debates of the manifesto guiding them, and even featuring excerpts from a play dramatising it. The final story is about the art of “police cooking.”

Life from the scene.

However, what’s notable about each of these three stories is the emphasis that they place on the importance of the mechanisms that support those who do creative work. Imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler would have toiled in obscurity, if not for the twin influences of his muse Simone and his art dealer Julien Cadazio, both of whom inspire his creativity and bring his work to the world. Student radical Zeffirelli relies on the insight of journalist Lucinda Krementz to shape his manifesto. Even chef Nescaffier is essentially a support system to local law enforcement, ensuring that they get the food they need to do their work.

Even Howitzer himself is presented as a similar support system for his writers, a group of misfits and eccentrics who would struggle to find a place in the world without him. Roebuck Wright recalls how he came to work for Howitzer, following a bar room brawl. Howitzer was the only phone number that Wright could recall, and Howitzer came down to the station to not only bail out the young writer, but also to assign him a book review against the cost of bail.

Putting it all together.

There is perhaps something a little self-serving in Wes Anderson’s celebration of editors. It often seems like the best that these support mechanisms can do is get out of the way of the talent that they are encouraging. Cadazio is an art dealer without taste, but he is at least cognisant of his lack of taste. He trusts that Rosenthaler is a once-in-a-generation talent simply on the fact that Rosenthaler could have drawn a robin if he chose to, but has instead devoted his life to making more impressionistic works.

The French Dispatch is deferential to its writers. When Zeffirelli gives Krementz his manifesto to proofread, he concedes that it is only in the expectation that she will be awed by its brilliance. (“Don’t critique my manifesto,” he objects.) Howitzer himself is an ideal sort of editor. His cuts and trims tend to be minimal – he shaves a single line from the second paragraph of the introduction to the local town, and cuts advertisements and headlines rather than trimming prose itself. He even encourages Wright to put back in an anecdote he trimmed from the story. “That’s the whole reason to write the story,” Howitzer insists.

News of the world.

It’s a very romantic portrayal of the creative process. Anderson seems to argue for complete creative freedom, where the primary role of those around creatives is to simply provide a platform and stand out of the way. In the world of The French Dispatch, creatives are best left to their own devices – no matter the cost, no matter the consequence. It’s an argument that makes sense, given Anderson’s own distinctive sensibility and his status as one of the most prominent auteurs working in modern film. It is also perhaps a little indulgent, particularly coming from a filmmaker as esoteric as Anderson.

Indeed, there are moments when this theme bubbles over into areas that feel a little clumsy and ill-judged. In the first two of its three main stories, The French Dispatch makes a connection between this sort of creative partnership and a more physical expression of emotional support. Simone is not just Rosenthaler’s model and teacher, nor the person who kicks him out of his self-pitying tantrums. Simone is also Rosenthaler’s lover. Similarly, Kementz doesn’t just inspire and guide the younger Zeffirelli, she is also his first lover.

A-muse-ing.

It’s not exactly the best look that both of the female journalists narrating the first two stories are revealed to have casually slept with their subjects. (J.K.L. Berensen also suggested to have had a torrid affair with Rosenthaler, while also cheerfully recounting his attempted assault of her.) While The French Dispatch is certainly miles away from something like Richard Jewell, there is something vaguely unsettling in the casualness with which it portrays this sort of violation of these relationships. After all, Simone is not merely Rosenthaler’s muse; she is also a prison guard.

The most flattering interpretation of the recurring use of this trope in The French Dispatch is that it represents an assault on the notion of “journalistic nuetrality”, the idea that writers are expected to prioritise the illusion of emotional distance from their subjects. After all, this approach leads to false equivalences that come from forced impartiality. The French Dispatch argues that the journalists telling these stories are undeniably part of these narratives, and cannot downplay or ignore that. It’s a very romantic portrayal of journalism, one that understands that observation and participation are not mutually exclusive.

A caged artist.

That said, there is admittedly a tension in the second of the three stories, focusing on a student uprising. Although the story obviously takes its cues from the classic Parisian student protests of the late sixties, it has obvious resonance with the modern world. Indeed, while Anderson’s work in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and even Isle of Dogs has obvious contemporary resonance, Revisions to a Manifesto feels like the most explicitly modern work that the director has produced in over a decade. It feels engaging with modern debates over protest culture, albeit couched in Anderson’s distinct sensibility.

Cleverly, Anderson seems to position himself with Kementz in telling this story, an outside observer from an older generation who is caught between confusion and pride in what these younger generations are attempting to accomplish. Anderson never entertains false equivalences. Kementz buys into the revolution entirely, even as she chides the kids for putting their dirty shoes on the upholstery. Kementz helps spice up the manifesto, but the film also concedes that her revisions diluted the radicalism that the angrier and younger voices need. She leaves the comfort of Zeffirelli’s family’s home to follow him into action.

Awash with issues.

However, there is also a sense that while Anderson’s heart is in the right place, he is also just as far outside his comfort zone as Kementz herself. Anderson is not a writer whose work functions as biting and specific social commentary, even if Revisions to a Manifesto tries to be a little specific in terms of contextualising these protests in response to foreign wars and a failing political system. It’s notable that while Anderson acknowledges the politics of the protest and the values of the protest, the section only really comes alive when Zeffirelli rides off into the night on a scooter with age-appropriate radical Juliette.

Admittedly, Revisions to a Manifesto is the weakest section of the film, but it is also illustrative of a larger structural issue with The French Dispatch. Each of the three films follows a similar structure, starting with an absurdist and arch set up, before peeling back to reveal the humanity underpinning it all: Rosenthaler’s loneliness, Kementz’s rejection of journalistic nuetrality, Wright’s understanding of what it is to be a complete outsider in a hostile world that hates him for what he is rather than who he is.

Sacre Blue.

The structure itself isn’t the problem. It is how Anderson tends to approach his stories, starting with something that looks goofy and silly, before wandering into a very human and beating heart. The problem is the repetition of the structure across each of the three stories, and the fact that the transition from each of the three stories involves an effective “reset” so Anderson can make the same emotional journey again. Jeffrey Wright is wonderful as Roebuck Wright, but the moments where the character’s humanity breaks through the formalistic production design would be more effective it it wasn’t the third time it happened in a row.

Still, there is a lot to like in The French Dispatch. Anderson is an arch formalist, and there is something to be said for the way in which the writer and director manages to bring a magazine to the screen, particularly through the voices of the journalists writing the stories. In keeping with the melancholic and nostalgic vibes of the larger story, The French Dispatch uses framing devices as characters narrate their sections. J.K.L. Berensen is giving a lecture adapted from her article. Wright is being interviewed on television about his career, and his “textographic” memory is being tested through recitation.

Making a meal of it.

It’s a clever structural approach that foregrounds these distinct voices, emphasising the importance of the storyteller in the telling of the story. Anderson is a director with a skill at framing his stories, of making the audience aware of how carefully constructed his world is, which allows him to journey deeper and deeper into these narratives. During particularly compelling sections, the frame shifts and colour bursts into the film. There is a climactic chase sequence animated in the style of a New Yorker cartoon.

All of this creates a compelling sense of artificiality, drawing the audience’s attention to the lens as much as the subject. It’s these choices that make Anderson one of the very few directors working today who could attempt a project like this. It is too much to suggest that The French Dispatch feels like reading a magazine. It is too much of a film for that description to apply. It is perhaps more accurate to argue that The French Dispatch never allows its audience to forget that this is a celebration of magazine journalism in film form.

A familiar tune.

There’s a tenderness at play in The French Dispatch, an abiding affection for the film’s subjects – for the world that it is recreating through this imagined alternate version of The New Yorker, just as The Grand Budapest Hotel celebrated Europe through an imagined alternate history. As Anderson’s stylistic sensibility has become increasingly heightened, he has managed to focus more cleanly on the emotional heart of the stories that he is telling.

As ever, the production itself is top notch. The French Dispatch is beautiful to look at, thanks to the work of Anderson’s long-standing collaborators like cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen. The film is packed with homages and references, jokes and playful compositions. Zeffirelli is so French that he always has a cigarette in hand; sometimes even two. The cartoon section at the climax seems designed to acknowledge Anderson’s tendency towards camera and actor movement on only two axes.

Nothing comes between them.

The French Dispatch is too uneven to count among Anderson’s best work. Indeed, there is sense that three short films (preceded by two brief preludes) from Wes Anderson is perhaps too much of the director’s distinctive stylistic sensibility in too tight a package. This is a film that is a love letter to a medium that celebrates distinct voices, but in which its five segments are all undeniably the work of one single unified voice. Still, there is a lot to admire and enjoy in The French Dispatch. The film is too joyful and too sincere to dismiss, its charm too infectious, its nostalgia and romance too endearing.

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