The French Dispatch: review of a 4-in-1 film

Wes Anderson’s love letter to journalists looks good but needs an editor

I know fuck all about films.

(Or are you supposed to say ‘film?’)

We are already off to a shaky start.

I couldn’t say the same for Wes Anderson, a guy who knows so much about film he’s an auteur. His latest offering started promisingly with a charming bunch of expat journalists (now there’s an oxymoron) compiling a tribute to their adopted country, called ‘The French Dispatch’ magazine.

What a cast. I’ve never seen such an illustrious attendance at an editorial meeting. Editor Bill Murray is surrounded by Owen Wilson, Elizabeth Moss and Frances McDormand. In true whimsy Wes style we’re given a glimpse of these roving reporters out on their assignments in the community. Owen Wilson’s cycle through the village is nicely shot and narrated. Oh yeah, the village these journos live in is called Ennui-sur-blasé.

As Bill’s editor puts the magazine together, we get jolted from one beautifully rendered story to the next. There’s three sub-plots to the main one about the journalists, each focused on a story featured in the magazine. All are done in black-and-white. That is a very anal way of explaining it but it’s a pretty anal plot and it doesn’t make sense. Roman Coppola, himself the son of an auteur is responsible for the story, which is, to put it nicely a bit up its own arse.

The first sub-plot is about a criminally insane artist (Benicio Del Toro) who paints abstract nudes of his prison guard lover (Lea Seydoux) which he sells to a felon art dealer, played by Adrien Brody whose face is just marvellous. Brody was made for black-and-white film.

His supercilious eyebrow raising tuxedo’d art dealer and Del Toro’s puppy-dog eyed convict elevate the whole vignette beyond the standard tortured genius trope. It’s moving, but I can’t help wondering where the journalists have gone to. Also, Tilda Swinton narrates! Suddenly I’m faced with the internet’s boyfriend, one Timothee Chalamet. What?

Chalamet, who has the small, sharp face and long-necked insignificant physique of an otter plays a revolutionary fighting against a grand cause we never really discover much about. In a way, he’s perfectly cast as a revolutionary, as he naturally looks like a startled meerkat sticking his head above the parapet.

It’s implied, with all the stylish French cafe shots of adolescents playing chess and dreaming up “manifestos” that Timmy and friends are Communists of a type. By that point in the film, I’d learned that with Wes it’s more about the style than the substance, so I stopped trying to figure out Timothee’s leanings and just enjoy the ride.

Talking of riding, Timmy bore the brunt of the film’s sexual assignments. He was a very busy boy indeed. He had a liaison with Frances McDormand’s wry smoking spinster journalist as she bashed out his aforementioned manifesto on her typewriter. We never saw them going at it but, again, a scene in her bedroom featuring a nude Timothee and a fully-clothed McDormand implied that she had sought sexual compensation for her trouble with the manifesto. My friends said that bit was creepy. I just thought Frances’ talent was under-used – by the film makers not by Timothee’s revolting revolter.

He soon moved on and got a younger model at McDormand’s spinster’s explicit encouragement. Well, you know what they say about the French. Indiscriminate fuckers, the lot of them. My friend who knows a lot about film thought that the treatment of the love scene between Timmy and his young lady friend – a motorbiking rival revolutionary – was distasteful because she got her tits out. It was “gratuitous nudity” according to her. My other friend, who is gay, said nothing. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt as she doesn’t know a lot about film either.

By this stage, I’d seen around two-and-a-half mini-films in quick succession. I was glad I’d bought a Coca-Cola because otherwise I’d have been asleep. Unhappily, the third bit was the most boring and we all agreed that it could have been cut. I think it was about a food writer who witnessed the kidnapping of a powerful man’s precocious little son who was harboured by Saoirse Ronan dressed as a hooker. But I couldn’t be sure. I was still wondering where the journalists, the horny rebels, and the artist had gone – or why they had ever been there in the first place.

The French Dispatch is billed as a “love letter” to journalists. But it’s more of a vanity project, really. Justifiably so? I reckon Wes Anderson’s aesthetic is probably enough to excuse the film’s flimsy plot in the adoring eyes of his legions of fans, yeah. Full disclosure: I think I might just be one of them.

I follow an Instagram account called ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ which posts images of kitsch pastel buildings that is one of my main traveling inspiration sources. I want to visit every single place. Wes’s world sure is good looking, but for a world that’s more about style than substance perhaps on this occasion Wes has bitten off more than he can chew.