Review: “The French Dispatch” is peak Wes Anderson and well worth the wait


Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The headquarters of the French Dispatch in Ennui, France from “The French Dispatch.”

Elliot Russell, Editor-in-Chief

“It all began as a holiday,” the narrator utters as the trailer opens. I feel like I’ve heard this phrase a thousand times as I’ve ruminated over Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” 

“The French Dispatch” was originally slated for a premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival with a subsequent release in July of that year. However, with the pandemic, Searchlight Pictures indefinitely delayed the release until it could be done safely on a wide scale. 

The film premiered at Cannes 2021 in July, was released in select theaters on October 22, then everywhere on November 5, which is when I finally had the chance to see it after what felt like ages of waiting.

Told in an anthology, the film presents a series of stories from a fictional publication known as the French Dispatch, based on the real-world “New Yorker” magazine and the works of essayists like James Baldwin. Originally an offshoot of a Kansas newspaper called Picnic, the Dispatch is staffed by American reporters who follow the happenings of the French village of Ennui.

The film opens with the death of editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The events from that point on are a retrospective of the publication’s winding history, all chronicled in a final issue honoring the “best ex-patriot journalists of his [Howitzer’s] time,” as the narrator describes it.

The first journalist is J.K.L. Berenstein (Tilda Swinton), who covers—perhaps too personally—incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) on his rise to prominence. 

Second, Lucinda Krementz (Frances MacDormand) immerses herself, un-journalistically, in a student uprising, known as the “Checkerboard Revolution,” led by rival revolutionaries Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). 

Lastly, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) climatically recalls his culinary review turned hostage scenario in the action-packed capstone piece featuring “police chef” Lieutenant Nescaffier (Steve Park).

The main three stories are supplemented by shorter segments, like an overview of Ennui, or the obituary of Arthur Howitzer Jr.

The wait is not in vain. This time around, Anderson brings more than his iconically eye-popping color palettes and symmetrical sets to the screen. While these are ever present— it is a Wes Anderson film after all—the personality of the film comes out when reading between the lines of this final obituary issue. Conversations between snarky youth and oblivious adults may have you recalling the “OR scrubs” of days past; it’s reminiscent, yet timelessly funny. His subtle style of humor has been one of the only constants in his films since he first made it big with “Rushmore” in 1998.

Anderson’s visual style has been amplified tenfold, which can be attributed in part to his collaborators such as cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set-designer Adam Stockenhausen, and countless other artists behind the scenes.

Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli and Lyna Khoudri as Juliette (left to right) in a cafe, one of the more visually stunning scenes of the movie. (Credit: Searchlight Pictures)

“The French Dispatch” is not as grandiose as his last live-action endeavor “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” rather more minute and dollhouse-like: a model world entirely of the filmmakers’ invention. The care put into each and every detail of the town Ennui is almost overwhelming at times. Precisely curated, it’s the absolute pinnacle of his style: it doesn’t get any better than this, my friends. 

The streets are lined with individual shops, cafes and restaurants, and while primarily background fixtures, they have a character of their own, offering a lot for nerds like myself to ponder over. All of this is portrayed in a glorious hybrid of color and black-and-white. Over all else, the striking visual impression will stick with you long after leaving the theater.

The intricacies are not exclusive to the eyes, but the mind and heart too. There’s just something so unrequitedly heartfelt to it, even in the bleakest moments. Toward the end of the third story, Roebuck Wright shares some words with Lieutenant Nescaffier that really epitomize this film: “Maybe, with good luck, we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”

It’s the job of writers and filmmakers alike to live in the shoes of others, into unknown lands and beyond. “The French Dispatch” conveys all this and more by means of love, war, beauty, spectacle, and the eternal, though undoubtedly sometimes laughable, power of the pen.