Wes Anderson’s latest movie, The French Dispatch, opened October 22 in selected theaters across the US after premiering at Cannes. The acclaimed director of The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox has assembled yet another all-star cast in his newest, vaguely-incomprehensible film. The French Dispatch follows the expatriate journalists of an American-owned magazine operating in the fictional town of Ennui, France. The film tells the story of three writers as they compose their stories for the magazine’s final issue (following the founder’s death); an inmate (Benicio Del Toro) who paints abstract portraits of his security guard (Lea Seydoux) to international acclaim; a young revolutionary (Timothee Chalamet) leading various protests as he falls in love; and a writer (Jeffrey Wright) sent to profile a world-class police chef (Steven Park) when the chief of police’s son is kidnapped.
Even if you have never seen a Wes Anderson movie, you are most likely familiar with his directorial quirks; pastel colors, symmetry, and flat backdrops. His style, like in his more recent films (The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom) is meticulous to a fault. Every frame is filled to the brim, blocked in the most precise of manners. The movie snaps between black and white and 4:3 and 16:9—its color palette and aspect ratio self-consciously decided on. Anderson wants you to know you are watching a movie—realism has never been his forte. Sometimes, however, his meticulousness becomes suffocating. The onslaught of visual ephemera can become exhausting after a while. The dialogue whizzes by, each character speaking to a hyperactive metronome. People talk in a whirlwind of dates and numbers, statistics and jargon. Only once in the movie does the audience get the chance to breathe.
The movie’s fictional publication, aptly titled “The French Dispatch” is an ode to the heyday of “The New Yorker.” Characters in the film are overt references to real-life writers and journalists. One such character, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) is the movie’s take on James Baldwin, a foreign intellectual with an eidetic memory. Wright’s performance is magnetic, his mannerisms are easily the most subtle of the cast, his presence declarative in its placidity. It is the introduction of his character when the movie enters its most contemplative, emotionally resonant phase. The French Dispatch does not achieve the cathartic expulsion of pathos of The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but its final act comes close. It is undoubtedly the silliest third, but also the only act that takes the time to sit with its ideas.
The French Dispatch, an ode to print journalism, accomplishes what it set out to do. A ballad of a sort, one which says its thank you’s and its goodbyes to the journalists, writers, and intellectuals that shaped 20th-century media. The French Dispatch is no more than a send-off, a token of appreciation for storytellers that time faded away.