Bill Murray as an editor is my favorite part of the movie.
Bill Murray as an editor is my favorite part of the movie. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

For 50 years, The French Dispatch wedged itself between the pages of the Evening Star, a newspaper based in Liberty, Kansas. The fictional supplemental magazine that also serves as the title of Wes Anderson's latest film—out today—hired American writers to relay the comings and goings of a fictional French metropolis. The BFI described the movie as Anderson's "love letter to journalism," and it is, indeed, stuffed to the brim with the director's twee enthusiasm for glossy magazines like the New Yorker. Print media fanatics will be thoroughly delighted with this film.

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Set in the mid-twentieth century in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (never subtle, that Anderson), The French Dispatch is split into four newspaper sections with a different journalist taking the helm of each, giving it an anthology-like feel.

Bike-riding travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (played by long-time Anderson collaborator Owen Wilson) quickly guides the viewers through the perfectly cobbled streets of Ennui, a Paris-like city seemingly in the midst of change. Then J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) presents her piece on the exuberant abstract artworks created by imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). The French Dispatch quickly pivots to politics with an article by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who profiles the student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who is helping to lead a May 1968-like revolt in the streets of Ennui. And we finish with the work of lauded food writer, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), whose article on a celebrated chef takes a left turn when a kidnapper gets involved.

Many characters and stories are an amalgamation of several real-life writers and articles Anderson clearly adores—a bit of James Baldwin here, a bit of New Yorker editor Harold Ross there. He even goes as far as to thank his inspirations at the end of the film. And he pulls in several familiar faces and voices to give life to these absurdly named and scrupulously composed characters. Christoph Waltz, Adrien Brody, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Jarvis Cocker, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, and Edward Norton all lend themselves to play bit roles in the world of Ennui.

Lots of fun cameos in The French Dispatch.
Lots of fun cameos in The French Dispatch. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

But the obvious center of The French Dispatch is clearly the editor of the fictional magazine. Portrayed by a lowkey Bill Murray, the shrewd and rather glum Arthur Howitzer Jr. appears only intermittently, but he brings all these disparate stories together. The film is shaped around his death, leading his writers to reflect on his life (he appropriately receives an "editor's burial," a.k.a. a sparsely attended funeral). He patiently reads his writers' scribblings, giving them the very editor-ly advice to "make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose," and he knows the heart of the story when he sees it. Murray plays well the role of an authoritative but nurturing figure.

Plot is plentiful in this Anderson outing—and also, at times, a bit hard to wrangle—but it's almost secondary to his meticulously staged and highly aestheticized scenes. On this go 'round, we are treated to the pukey, bright compositions of Benicio del Toro's character, Chalamet straddling the back of his girlfriend's motorcycle seemingly headed into the stars, animated chase sequences, a naked Léa Seydoux, and a multi-level set inside the guts of an airplane. Every frame is a very quaint, very twee painting.

The film chaotically careens between black and white and color, using the latter to emphasize moments of high emotion or drama. And in a pandemic era where watching movies often takes on a chore-like quality of escape, I appreciate the level of care, control, and vision The French Dispatch offers. That's not to say that the film is Anderson's best. Though it starts strong, the movie greatly loses steam — its final act focuses on a confusing story that's saved only by its poignant ending.

However, I must admit, being an alt-weekly writer for a free-print-publication-turned-blog makes me uniquely susceptible to enjoying this highly nostalgic film. Like Anderson, I, too, am swept up by the idea of a reporter writing a circuitous 10,000 word article on the brilliance and love of a particular painter. Enchanted by the idea of a journalist embedding herself among revolutionaries. Thrilled at the prospect of setting out to compose a story about one person, but getting sidetracked into one of greater importance.

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The French Dispatch is a celebration and definite romanticization of the often tedious work that goes into being a reporter. While there are many entertaining aspects of the film, those who similarly long for the print magazine culture of yore will enjoy the movie the most.

Find showings of The French Dispatch here.