Film review: Anderson offers a dizzying ride in ‘The French Dispatch’

Expect lots of dry wit, brilliant staging — and lots of stars


“The French Dispatch” is the ultimate Wes Anderson movie — full of literary references, ingenious staging, meticulous designs and dry wit.

It’s best described as a series of stories, detailing the characters who make up the staff of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. All of these characters gather at the offices of the French Dispatch because the founder of the magazine, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) has been found dead of an apparent heart attack.

The writers aim to contribute to an obituary for their mentor, the son of a publisher in Kansas who visited France long ago and decided to stay and tell the United States about his experiences. The publisher, of course, assembled an all-star crew of writers to help him describe events in France to the folks back home. And they relay their stories — and their interactions with being edited by Howitzer.

In a way, it’s Anderson homage to the literary quirkiness of The New Yorker, a magazine that he grew up reading. And the end credits specifically mention the magazine’s co-founder, Harold Ross, and his successor, William Shawn, both of whom were inspirations for Murray’s character.

To say that “The French Dispatch” is a brilliant nsemble would be an understatement.

We are first introduced Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and he’s the cycling reporter who seems to be drawn to the seediest parts of any town he visits, sometimes to the dismay of Howitzer.

But Wilson’s cycling sets the stage for all of the action, giving us a tour of The French Dispatch’s home, the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blase, with ancient cathedrals, narrow streets and nightlife and lowlife. Anderson says that Wilson’s character mirrors the spirit of writers like Joseph Mitchell, whose pieces were collected in “Up in the Old Hotel,” and Luc Sante, whose “The Other Paris” is one of the director’s favorites.

Then Anderson switches to the art critic J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), who was partly inspired by the lecturer and writer Rosamond Bernier. Anderson adds that inspiration came from S.N. Behrman’s book “Duveen,” about the art collector Joseph Duveen.

Whatever the inspiration, the story about the art critic is titled “The Concrete Masterpiece.” Swinton’s character is giving a lecture about the so-called masterpiece in a Kansas museum funded by Upshur “Maw” Clampette (Lois Smith).

Clampette has relocated the piece to Kansas after buying it from a criminally insane and incarcerated painter, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). It turns out that Rosenthaler has found inspiration in his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux), who poses in the nude for him. Rosenthaler’s art, meanwhile, is initially discovered by art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody). But, as Swinton’s Berenson tells us — and Anderson shows us — Cadazio becomes enraged when he discovers that a long-awaited masterpiece by Rosenthaler has been painted on the wall of the prison.

(In case you are wondering, the paintings in the movie were done by the artist Sandro Kopp, Swinton’s life partner.)

Anderson’s next tale focuses on Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), in “Revisions to a Manifesto.” The manifesto is being written by Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), who is leading a student revolt with Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). The main demand: that male university students have unrestricted access to the dormitories of the female students.

Chalamet makes the most of his moments, always with a brown cigarette dangling from his lips. And McDormand brings lots of dry humor to Krementz — a character who is based on the real-life Canadian journalist of the same name, who covered the events of the student uprisings in May of 1968.

If all of this sounds too complicated, then you will probably be astounded by the next story: “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.”

The tale is told by journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), who is sort of a mashup of A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin. Wright has been dispatched to write about the wonderful food being made by a brilliant chef (Stephen Park) who works for the police commissioner (Mathieu Almaric). While eating the meal, the commissioner gets a phone call: His son has been kidnapped (by Edward Norton) and won’t be released until a jail inmate (Willem Dafoe) is freed.

It’s a wild tale, filled with chases and gun battles. And at various points, Anderson changes gears and starts telling the story by using animatics similar to those featured in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Benicio del Toro and Léa Seydoux in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

At other times, Anderson makes abrupt shifts from black and white to color or from widescreen to Academy ratio.

But what’s most striking is that every scene is almost like a painting, with meticulous attention to detail. And this point is made plain, when Anderson gets his characters to strike a pose — and hold it.

It will be quite surprising if “The French Dispatch” does not get several Oscar nominations, especially for production designer Adam Stockhausen, editor Andrew Weisbaum and costume designer Milena Canonero.

“The French Dispatch” has its local premiere at the Austin Film Festival on Oct. 21. It opens in U.S. theaters Friday, after having its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

Related articles