“The French Dispatch”: A Crowded House
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is that rarity, a disappointment that I feel I need to see again. By now, we all know how polarizing Anderson’s dollhouse movies tend to be. They’re immaculately designed, obsessively symmetrical; they’re boxes within boxes, each packed in a ruthlessly tidy fashion. But generally the stories have a strong throughline, a sturdy narrative arrow with some emotional resonance. The French Dispatch feels like it came out of the bottom drawer of Anderson’s desk. It’s a trio of tales, bracketed by front and end matter; it’s about journalists writing about artists, or at least about people who express themselves in some way — through painting, manifesto, food.
One of the segments, the one about the manifesto, I couldn’t tell you much about. You see what I mean when I say I want to watch it again. The French Dispatch is about a titular newspaper — the film’s full title is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — that reports on happenings in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé for the enjoyment, I guess, of the millions of Francophiles in Kansas. The newspaper is inspired by The New Yorker, particularly the magazine’s self-regard as The Magazine. All the best writers write for the French Dispatch, and the paper’s editor (Bill Murray) keeps trying to whittle their pieces into shape. The writers all love and tolerate him. He dies early on — like so much else here, we’re not asked to feel one way or the other about it — and what we see is the contents of the final issue of the paper.
But none of it really took hold and commanded my attention. The first story involves an artist (Benicio del Toro) who is also serving a life sentence for murder. The second follows Dispatch reporter Frances McDormand as she gets caught up in a student protest and its players. The last has to do with the kidnapping of a little boy and a police officer who’s also a chef — most of the characters have different facets to them. Technically, the filmmaking is gorgeous, with alternating black-and-white or color photography by Robert Yeoman in two different aspect ratios. It’s all very cleverly worked out. The problem is a pit that Anderson has been edging towards for a few movies now, and in The French Dispatch he topples right into it — there are just too damn many characters.
At this point, being in a Wes Anderson movie must be a terrific feather in an actor’s cap, and a lot of them come work with him over and over. But nothing in this movie will show you why. The teeming mass of actors here rarely get a moment to give us a reason to care about them; people like Edward Norton and Elisabeth Moss and Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe pass through, hardly even getting any lines. (The bulk of the movie is narrated by the stories’ writers anyway, further limiting the characters’ opportunity to speak for themselves.) Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan turns up as a character credited only as “Junkie/Showgirl #1.” The impression you get is that Wes Anderson has joined the elite cadre of directors who can compel a four-time Oscar nominee to play Junkie/Showgirl #1. Well, good for him. Not so good for us, or for Saoirse Ronan.
And yet … I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Anderson’s prior films, so I’m willing to give The French Dispatch the benefit of the doubt; a second viewing, knowing what it is going into it, may not be amiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the movie doesn’t drill down and tell one particular person’s story. Maybe the movie is about storytelling itself, about who tells stories and who hears or reads them. The main character is the Dispatch. The style of the film is the style of the writers. The writers are self-centered to a degree that they make the stories about them — they think they have to make the stories worthy of being told by them. Running through the film is a sneaky little critique of the whole New Yorker magazine-of-record aesthetic and ethos. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s both nostalgic and timeless. It didn’t stick to me — this time — but I wouldn’t dream of discouraging anyone, especially Anderson followers, from seeing it. Just know what you’re in for.