I’ve been waiting to see The French Dispatch since its original July 2020 release date because I’m a big fan of the director, Wes Anderson’s, film style. What’s his style? Well, the plot lines are invariably eccentric (think Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and are rather melancholy though filled with gentle quirky humour. I’ll get to the plot of this film in a moment.
Anderson’s visual style involves symmetrical compositions (you can’t miss them). He often includes animated sequences, rather artificial sets, and sometimes even miniatures. He sometimes interleaves black and white and colour photography. It’s like you’re visiting a scale model of someone’s imagined world.
Anderson’s films always have a big cast. The French Dispatch has so many well-known actors in it that one critic wrote, “Trying to acknowledge the great work done by everyone on screen is a fool’s errand.” It’s fun spotting all the cameos. The actors seem to be having a great time, which translates into a lot of fun for the audience. Bill Murray, one of Anderson’s favourite actors, is a central character. Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet have major roles, as does Tilda Swinton. Elizabeth Moss and Willem Dafoe, amoung many others, have bit parts. The cast list goes on for several tightly spaced screens; you can see the whole list on IMDB.
And the plot? Ah yes, the plot! The prologue tells us that Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the son of the owner of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, seeking to avoid returning to Kansas, turned a series of travelogues into a Sunday supplement magazine called The French Dispatch. Which looks an awful lot like the New Yorker magazine. Howitzer hired a bunch of crackerjack writers, and with his odd editorial guidance, they produced a magazine that was read in 50 countries (and, of course, in Liberty, Kansas). He has only two maxims: no crying and try to make it seem you wrote it that way on purpose.
Now it’s the 1970s. Howitzer has just died. Therefore, according to his wishes, the staff put out the magazine’s final issue using previously published articles. It has four features—a profile of the town they’re based in (Ennui-Sur-Blasé), a long piece on the international success of a psychotic painter sentenced to life imprisonment whose artistic muse and nude model is his gorgeous prison guard, a report from student riots which involve a chess match and a complete failure of journalistic neutrality, and an eye-witness account of a child kidnapping with Keystone Cops elements which is resolved by a brilliant chef who cooks for the local police force.
There are lots of reasons The French Dispatch is on many “best of 2021” lists. But the best reason is that it’s a lot of fun.
As a bonus, The French Dispatch is playing at both of Ottawa’s independent cinemas: The Mayfair (Dec. 19 to 30) and the ByTowne (Dec. 24 to 30). Visit mayfairtheatre.ca and bytowne.ca for the schedule and tickets.