Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

December 6, 2021

Dispatch Your Ass to ‘The French Dispatch’

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I should start this review with a disclaimer: I’m not impartial here. I was the pretentious thirteen year-old who loved to assert that her favorite movie was Moonrise Kingdom, and I idolized Wes Anderson’s droll screenplays, pastel visuals and unabashed love for excessive narration and voiceover. As a jaded liberal arts kid, I still don’t claim to be too cool for his movies either; this year, I literally dressed as Margot Tenenbaum for Halloween (one of my best costumes, in my humble opinion). 

The French Dispatch is definitely rewarding for any Anderson fan, with its gratuitous miniatures, tableau, dry humor, meticulous worldbuilding and of course, listings of objects. The movie focuses on the last publication of The French Dispatch after the death of its editor, Midwesterner Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), and mainly three vignettes of its best stories. Howitzer’s catchphrase is “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” and it’s undeniably fun to watch him give feedback to the writers he secretly favors. Set in the quaint French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé (maybe a bit too on the nose?), Dispatch’s setting also becomes its own character.

 The first vignette centers on Moses Rosenthal (Benicio del Toro), a gifted Abstract Expressionist painter imprisoned for murder. A fellow inmate, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) unearths his genius, and upon his release, tries to make Rosenthal the darling of the art world. It’s an interesting expression of the role of fine art getting twisted by the demands of the art market  — there’s a wonderful line where Rosenthal is frustrated at Cadazio for focusing on money, and Cadazio responds with something along the lines of, “Well, why else would you make art?” These scenes are contrasted with quiet moments between artist and muse; the prison guard (Léa Seydoux) models for Rosenthaler with a fierce intensity, and the two quickly become lovers. At times, though, their relationship felt devoid of any affection; in a scene discussing Rosenthaler’s future as an artist, Anderson’s toneless dialogue felt out of place. This was one of a few moments in the film where I wish Anderson took a step back from his conceptual wonderland and let his precisely drawn characters linger in their emotions a bit more. 

The second act, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” was the strongest, because without the many layers of narration on top of the story in the first and third acts, the characters get enough room to breathe. The story follows the reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) as she covers a series of student protests led by the idealistic Zeffirelli (Timotheé Chalamet), but becomes personally entangled with her subject. It’s entertaining to watch the contrast between the quixotism of the college students and the hardened wisdom of McDormand’s foil. In many ways, Anderson sides with the college students’ rose colored hopes for their future, but in the end the college students simply want unrestricted access to each other’s dorms. The starry-eyed depiction of young love (and a character’s death via barely-explainable lightning strike) reminded me of Moonrise Kingdom, and in this, I think the movie regains some of its heart. The revolutionary spirit eventually wanes, and we are left to mourn the bittersweet loss of youthful spirit.

The third act of the movie, which centers around the kidnapping of a police chief’s son and an excellent chef, is saved by Jeffrey Wright’s performance as journalist Roebuck Wright. However, it suffers from the same problems as the beginning: an excess of exposition and too many layers of narration. By the time we get to the animated sequence at the climax of the movie, I found myself wishing for a greater sense of urgency. For example, the driving factor in The Grand Budapest Hotel is the looming threat of fascism, quietly ripping away at Anderson’s curated fantasy until it maxes out in an unceremonial tragedy. In Dispatch, however, I found myself relieved when the drawn-out antics of the third act came to an end. 

All this undermines the very simple fact that I liked the movie. There’s no shortage of creative artistic flourishes, and Anderson manages to make things like the incessant switching of aspect ratios and transitions from color to black and white feel not just artful, but necessary. Dispatch is Anderson at his full force, and while it’s a pleasurable addition to his catalog, it’s not the one to start with if you’re new to his work. 

Violet Gooding is a freshman in the College of Artand Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].