Wes Anderson’s 10th feature film was originally going to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival.. It indeed premiered at Cannes, but a year later. It’s Wes Anderson’s first live action film in eight years, the last being The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It’s the first time Anderson has used an anthology format for one of his films, which given the increasingly sprawling cast lists for each Anderson film, seems like a logical cinematic format.
The film’s various stories make up the final issue of The French Dispatch magazine, which is based on The New Yorker. Most of the stories have some basis in real-life people. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), dies and as a part of his will, the magazine must close after one final issue. There are three stories, with the Howitzer story being the wrap-around and a short, amusing travelogue story with Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazera at the start. The stories are what made the magazine and put a spotlight on the man Howitzer was.
Each story is pleasurable, although at times you wish Anderson had just made three films (or done a mini-series) and given viewers a little more time to breathe. The French Dispatch is 100 minutes long.
The first story is called The Concrete Masterpiece, and it’s a very funny send-up of the art world and modernism, with Benicio Del Toro as the incarcerated Moses Rosenthale, who gets discovered by a crooked art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrian Brody). Léa Seydoux plays Rosenthaler’s muse and prison guard. The film or more or less evenly split between black and white and colour. The compositions are impressive as you would expect from Anderson, with a symmetry looser than usual. It comes in at a madcap pace, and has some of the good old ultraviolence but in absurd fashion = one of Anderson’s secret narrative weapons. Tilda Swinton plays journalist J.K.L. Berensen, who writes and appears in the story.
The next segment will no doubt annoy and delight viewers in equal measure. Revisions to a Manifesto is a spot-on pastiche of May ’68 and Godard’s films before and after. Timothée Chalamet plays the pencil-moustached Zeffirelli, an anarchist student who starts a uprising through… chess moves. Relative newcomer Lyna Khoudri makes quite an impression as Zeffirelli’s girlfriend, Juliette, who mocks his manifesto. Frances McDormand plays older journalist Lucinda Krementz, who is profiling the student activists for The French Dispatch, and starts a fling with Zeffirelli. It’s sympathetic to the student revolutionaries, but also mocks their pretentiousness. It’s the most out-and-out silly of the three segments.
In the third segment, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, Jeffrey Wright plays Roebuck Wright, a character modelled on James Baldwin with a bit of A.J. Liebling thrown in. This story has its own wraparound, with Roebuck recounting the story on a ‘70s’ talk show (perhaps The Dick Cavett Show) with Liev Schreiber as the host. Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton play small and exciting roles. It’s a strange segment, because while the performances are all great, especially Wright’s, the story is just a silly crime caper. The plot mechanics grow a little tiresome, and the animation sequence, while beautiful, feels unnecessary. Ultimately, the story fails to deliver some kind of poignancy.
This is undeniably the work of Wes Anderson, so it may take a few viewings to unpack all of the jokes and references – the casting. Despite the shortcomings, it’s one of the best films of the year, and a delightful ode to journalists and their editors. The landscape of cinema today needs dreamers and fantasists more than ever.
The French Dispatch has just premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.