Many Plots, Little Substance in The French Dispatch

Vy Nguyen, Op-Ed Editor

Behind the unsaturated tones and weathered bricks wrapping around its exterior, a building’s interior is covered with vibrant pastel wallpaper as eager editors meticulously drag their pens over rough drafts. Staff writers inquisitively hunt for the next big headline. An atmosphere of frivolity drifts from the hallways decorated in rustic charm, to the brainstorming room filled with fresh story pitches. Welcome to The French Dispatch. 

Photo courtesy of Imdb

The eponymous The French Dispatch, a twentieth-century French newspaper based on today’s The New Yorker, is the focal point and pinnacle of the anthology film. Directed by Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch follows the death of its Editor in Chief, Arthur Howitzer (Bill Murray), and how, in the face of memory and grief, the staff prepares a final farewell issue, republishing a travelogue and three feature pieces. The film delves into each piece as the writers recount their last articles; some contemplate themes of forbidden love and others narrate a child-kidnapping. 

The building is a sentimental metaphor for the final edition, with the depth of each article representing a whimsical room about to have its door closed forever. However, the film itself is nothing but a specious inversion of the publication’s building: exquisite and peculiar on the outside, exhausting and mundane on the inside. 

If one peels back the avant-garde fashion, renowned cast and flowery wallpaper, The French Dispatch is merely a pretentious storyline and one-dimensional characterization. 

Photo courtesy of Imdb

The first narrative, a travelogue, follows journalist and cyclist Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) through the town’s morbid streets as he takes note of daily occurrences, such as how 8.2 bodies wash up from a river per week. Wilson’s effortlessness paired with Sazerac’s satirical humor effectively brings charm to the dismal landscape of Ennui-sur-Blasé, nevertheless, the story sprints to the next article without leaving the audience enough time to fall in love with the town. This rushed process repeats itself three more times, each time becoming increasingly tedious and obnoxious. Although the travelogue maintains a riveting rhythm, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for its less exciting and more convoluted counterparts. 

In the first feature, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” written by staff writer J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton), incarcerated murderer Moses Rosenthal (Benecio del Toro) gains public notoriety after painting his prison guard and star-crossed lover, Simone (Léa Seydoux), nude. This relationship is bereft of any true substance and opts for superfluous nude montages as a replacement for chemistry. Romance can be one of the pillars upholding a nail-biting plot, but nudity does not equate to romance, thus Berensen’s entire narrative, which hinged on the illicit relationship, is simplified to an attempted prison escape, skeevy art dealers and ennui for the viewer.  

The theme of flaccid relationships is further intertwined in the penultimate feature piece. Entailing a student revolution led by a wild-haired chessmaster, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), staff writer Lucinda Krementz’s (Frances McDormand) “Revisions to a Manifesto” narrates a string of protests and teenage thrills. Protests should be inextricably tied to passion and purpose, but the plot ignores this. Instead, the focus shifts towards Zeffirelli, his chess prowess and his love-hate romance with fellow protester Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). He acts as an impersonation of a leader while preaching bombastic speeches atop tables and brandishing his fist, leaving a juvenile and cartoon-like impression on the audience. 

This narrative’s interpretation of dissent is superficial at best. The French Dispatch desperately wants to be relevant with its undertones of social justice in “Revisions to a Manifesto,” inadvertently romanticizing the fight for freedom.

Photo courtesy of IMDb

Although the first two features’ plots remain stagnant and devoid of personality, their dull nature allows the final feature, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” to truly shine. Writer and food journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) discusses his piece on a talk show as he retells a riveting tale of a private dinner with the Commissaire of the Ennui police force (Mathieu Amalric), prepared by Gordon Ramsey-reminiscent chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). During the meal, the Commissaire’s son, Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), is kidnapped by a gang, pushing Wright and the audience into a nail-biting police chase. Thankfully, Gigi is saved, but this is at the cost of Nescaffier, who sacrifices himself when attempting to poison the gang with his cooking. Even though his death was devastating for the police force and Wright, in a flashback, it is revealed that Nescaffier viewed the death as a catharsis — he was happy to die since he had no passion left to live. Anderson’s choice to blend the excitement of an action film with the poignancy of a drama was wise, especially since the dual nature of the final story left an atmosphere of balance for the audience. 

While the final feature was an emotional joyride, unfortunately, its abundance of characters made for a slightly discombobulated narrative, much like its precursors. 

Many film critics find The French Dispatch’s large cast and isolated plotlines to be quirky; however, in this reviewer’s opinion, large casts leave no time for significant plot development, making each character no more than a mere plot device. Esteemed actors who played minor roles, such as Saoirse Ronan, who played a mysterious hooker, and Edward Norton, who played a kidnapping gang-leader, were phenomenal. Nevertheless, a stellar cast is obsolete when the characters are underdeveloped and shallow. A wide range of talent was at The French Dispatch’s disposal, which goes to prove that skillful actors do not make for a promising movie. 

Despite its compelling performances and pastel hues, at the end of the day, The French Dispatch is an empty movie wrapped in pretty paper, concealing its ostentatious perceptions of journalism through elaborately meaningless plots and characters.