Structurally, The French Dispatch is a giant turducken of a thing: an anthology of three ‘feature articles’ parcelled together under the masthead of the titular French-based publication. It’s run with suave elan and a deeply liberal approach to word count by American expat editor-in-chief, Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray, channelling Charles Foster Kane after a four-hour lunch). Providing some narrative glue between the three unconnected kinda-short-films are editorial meetings that introduce, among others, Elisabeth Moss as a dead-eyed copy editor (and at which, implausibly, not a single journalist asks for a deadline extension – although, in fairness, there is one preposterous expenses claim). Howitzer’s sole instruction to his writers is to ‘make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose’.
The wildly successful magazine is based in the amusingly named French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, a stylised ville whose past and future is outlined in a preliminary travelogue presented by a knowingly stiff Owen Wilson as travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (apparently, a version of real-life ‘New Yorker’ writer Joseph Mitchell). Its present, meanwhile, calls to mind the Paris of Amélie: a picture box place where ‘rats, vermin, gigolos and streetwalkers’ co-exist with hopeless romantics, student revolutionaries, renowned chefs and great artists. It’s a big melting point of creativity and the writer-director is obviously hopelessly in love with its possibilities. Even its prison is the starting point for an entire artistic movement.
Anderson, along with his regular production designer Adam Stockhausen, provides intricate tableaus to get lost in and captures them via his trademark dolly shots. Entire building facades pull away to reveal feverish student gatherings inside cafés and deadpan gun battles unfold in slow motion. There’s also some stop-motion animation, several freeze frames, some handheld camera work, mag-style captions and an entire comic-book-style car chase. It’s the kind of movie that can stick Willem Dafoe in a giant chicken coop and it not even be the silliest thing in the scene. The formal playfulness veers between delightful and overwhelming.
Despite that self-imposed magazine framework, Anderson takes frequently stylistic detours that don’t fit the format – as when Tilda Swinton’s art writer recounts her story from a lecture podium or Jeffrey Wright’s food journo shares his with a US chatshow host (Liev Schreiber). The regular use of black and white to signal a shift of period, or possibly to homage French new wave filmmakers, drains the vibrancy for a filmmaker for whom colour is character. It’s like taking a bite of one of Grand Budapest’s Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat and discovering that it’s sugarfree.
Wes aficionados will tick off the quirky, fun turns from the director’s roster of regulars – along with one or two impressive newbies (look out for Algerian-French actress Lyna Khoudri in the second, Victor Hugo-meets-Jules-et-Jim vignette, and Léa Seydoux as a no-nonsense prison guard in the first), and one or two wasted ones (Saoirse Ronan in a throwaway role as a gangster’s moll). Benicio del Toro makes an impression as a murderous modern artist with an eye for Seydoux’s jailer in the opening jail-set yarn, even calling someone a ‘cocksucker’ in an unlikely The Usual Suspects Easter egg.
But the zingers are intermittent at best, and when the film truly engages the heart, as it does during the unlikely love triangle between Khoudri’s student firebrand, Frances McDormand’s journo and Timothée Chalamet’s May 68-esque revolutionary, or when Jeffrey Wright’s food writer reflects movingly on his work, it’s straight onto the next thing. And that’s the problem Anderson never gets to grips with: you can flick through a magazine at your own pace and in any order, and let the stories settle over you in increments. The French Dispatch just keeps turning the page on you.
In US and UK cinemas Oct 22.