If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would have seen Wes Anderson’s latest feature The French Dispatch (2021) as a Three Days in Cannes young cinephile recipient in 2020. However, with the multiple postponements and uncertainty of public safety, I ended up watching it at a small outpost of Landmark Theatres with a girl I had once made plans to exist in France with. This branch of Landmark, not unlike the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, brought a subdued and magical quality to the evening in terms of tone and ambiance––the popcorn boys shuffling around, co-workers noting one another’s marquee work––unlike its larger counterpart in, say, Los Angeles. Instead of circling around the French Riviera with an Aperol Spritz in hand amongst all the white suits and Sperry Topsiders, I waltzed in the theatre lobby with a bundle of Trader Joe’s baby breath I then handed to the girl in a black beret, already behind the ticket checker with a bag of popcorn. Let’s just say the atmosphere was like a weekday evening ballet recital that you have to attend, even though it’s raining and you’re stuck in traffic, but your kid has no ride home.
“The French Dispatch” is a love letter to journalism, most notably The New Yorker. In a conversation with Walter Donahue, Anderson mentions reading the magazine in his school library as a teenager. The precocious sentiment finds itself in the film, encapsulating the allure one has as a child of the so-called journalism adult world of martinis and snappy reporters. Bill Murray does wonders as Arthur Howitzer Jr., the beloved and recently-deceased editor of the paper. His motto: “No crying in the newsroom.” The film acts as a visual interpretation of the final issue, complete with a table of contents. The end credits feature dedications to real-life journalists including Harold Ross and A.J. Liebling. The cartoonish drawings evoke New Yorker covers and cartoons––the car chase scene in the final story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” transitions into hand-drawn animation in a delightfully charming way. Artist Gwenn Germain displays his multifaceted talent through his simple yet touching vignette.
Critics argue that the film “can be charming, yet cold and empty; energetic, but tedious” as if The French Dispatch is a tried attempt of emulating a Wes Anderson film without any sustenance. However, hasn’t Anderson been criticized for his “style over substance” from the very start? Also according to Susan Sontag––“…style is art. And art is nothing more or less than various modes of stylized, dehumanized representation.” Style is substance. I wouldn’t even say The French Dispatch, as aesthetically pleasing as is, has more or less style than Moonrise Kingdom (2012) or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), both of which are filled with precious props, colorful shots, and heavily likened to a fourth-grade shoebox diorama. Though the first feature, “The Concrete Jungle,” switches frequently from black and white to the technicolor present, the starkness is reminiscent of newspaper print, inky and recognizable. His newcomers fit right into his world. Tweeness doesn’t automatically correlate to immaturity or mawkishness; the film is rather a patchwork of what constitutes a Wes Anderson film a “Wes Anderson film.”
The French Dispatch is also a love letter to the young. The second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” featuring Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand, follows youth culture in Ennui. Manifestos are written, chess games are taken seriously, kids dance to the fictional Tip-Top on pastel-colored jukeboxes. Jarvis Cocker’s cover of Christophe’s “Aline” unites the town; the audience roots for the students whenever the opening notes reprise. I’ll never get over Zeffirelli (Chalamet) telling Lucinda Krementz (McDormand): “I only asked you to proofread it [the manifesto] because I thought you’d be even more impressed by how good it already is.”
I believe The French Dispatch deserved an Oscar nomination. Who doesn’t want to see Owen Wilson, clad in a beret, ride around a small fictional town in France on a bicycle? Compared to Paul Thomas Anderson’s triple Oscar-nominated Licorice Pizza (2021), The French Dispatch’s eccentric ensemble paints a more moving youthful portrait. We get everything from a prison art review to a protest-turned-love story and one beautifully orchestrated personal food essay. My initial wish was for the film to be elongated but by the second watch, the length is perfect. I would have liked more banter––I missed Anderson’s meandering conversations like in Bottle Rocket (1996)––but we get enough in the newsroom. Howitzer tells the writers to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” inviting you to pull out your notepad and start writing. In an age of click-bait articles, the film yearns for the story, the one that’s heart-wrenching and memorable, awe-inspiring, the kind you tell all your friends. The one that reaches the reader, rather than being quickly swiped away for the next. Though a nod to the French New Wave could have been nice by more sidewalk conversations. This is Wes Anderson’s wave, and we’ll keep riding tandem with him until the very last deadpan joke.