“The French Dispatch”: Wes Anderson’s Questionable Ode to Journalism

Harley Marks, Contributing Writer

“The French Dispatch,” a multi-layered tale set in 20th-century France, brings to life a collection of newspaper columns published in, you guessed it, the French Dispatch. I went into this film with no expectations or context; I did know that Wes Anderson’s unique artistic vision and quirky storytelling would offer entertainment at the very least. While the movie certainly has its pros, I find the overall structure fragmented, the journalists’ characters underdeveloped, and the takeaway message hard to find. Because film is art, and art is subjective, it is hard to sit here and concretely say what worked and what didn’t. I plan on writing this commentary regardless. 

As someone who has always loved writing and appreciated journalism, I want to first discuss the aspects of the movie that really made for an incredible viewing experience. Naturally, in perfect Anderson fashion, the aesthetic of this film is truly incredible. The vibrant and creative use of colors, the beautiful European setting, and the classic vintage feel are hard to ignore and add a certain complexity to the story that I thoroughly enjoyed. The screenplay is also exceptionally done, as the story is broken into three mini-stories that correlate with different sections in the final issue of the French Dispatch newspaper. Going hand-in-hand with the screenplay is the script, which is actually one of the more brilliant movie scripts I’ve seen. The language makes it feel like you really are reading a story and can help you appreciate all the small details and complexities that make Wes Anderson films so special. Lastly, a more obvious pro to this movie is the masterful and seasoned cast. Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray and Timothée Chalamet are just a few examples of the stellar actors who bring their characters to life. Owen Wilson showcased a new side of himself and thrived in a role different from his usual forte. An experienced actor for Anderson films, Bill Murray delivered in his usual way – blunt and relatable. And Timothée Chalamet proved, yet again, his ability to excel in any role and act with the same level of charisma and expertise as his older counterparts (I would be lying if I said he wasn’t my main motivation for seeing the film). However, even with all of its perfect quirks and exquisite details, I left the theater with a sense of disappointment. 

While I can appreciate Wes Anderon’s style, I think he relies too much on it, and too much on his reputation. Although his style works with this particular story, I would love to see something moodier and darker from him. I think there is a way to still express his personal style in a manner that is different from what viewers expect. Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed by his artistic decisions for the entirety of the film; however, it is easy for this style to get stale after 30 minutes (there is only so much quirkiness a viewer can handle). When announcing this film, Anderson claimed it was written as a “love letter to journalists.” I would argue that this is most definitely a stretch. In my opinion, it was more of a love letter to art and filmmaking, because the writers in the movie didn’t get their time to shine as much as their stories did. Did the movie turn seemingly mundane newspaper articles into glamorous, complex and beautiful narratives? Yes. But did it also neglect the journalists’ different approaches to writing, preferred writing styles and sources of inspiration? Also, yes. Having more background on these characters would have added a lot to the mini-stories. Another observation: the plot felt disjointed and the ending rushed. Sure, it’s fun to scatter a bunch of mini-stories throughout the general plot of the movie, but why didn’t they connect? I couldn’t sense clear overlaps in theme between them. Perhaps they weren’t meant to connect, but by putting them in the context of one whole shared newspaper, the expectation is for them to relate in some way. That is something that was missing from the plotline. The ending, while connected to the very opening scene of the film, felt extremely rushed as well. Perhaps if the movie cut out just one of the mini-stories, it would’ve had time to adequately wrap up the plot and revisit the characters. Speaking of characters! I have a problem with Chalamet’s character, Zeffirelli. For a movie set in France, about a French newspaper, and with French lines in the script, you would think that Timothée Chalamet (who is French himself) would be able to tap into that side of himself at some point in the film. He had no French lines. To the average viewer that seems harmless, but I’d argue that a Timothée stan would have higher hopes for his character’s portrayal. His acting was great per usual, but I personally felt that he didn’t fit the aesthetic of the film. He just seemed out of place; it felt like he was hired to draw in a younger audience (which admittedly, worked!). Maybe it was his natural modern look or lack of French lines, but I feel that Timothée could’ve been used in a different way.  

Overall, this movie is worth watching. If anything, it is beautiful and somewhat entertaining. However, it didn’t deliver on its promise of being an ode to journalism. An ode to journalism to me is focusing on the very writers who create the journalism for us. Neglecting those characters in the film was a huge mistake. I would also forewarn any potential viewer that the Wes Anderson quirkiness is certainly not for everyone. Some people like to work to find the message in a movie and some just like to have a simple, fun viewing experience. This movie is not made for the latter group. After about an hour of this film, and after I suffered through all the over-the-top artsy quirks that I could handle, I was ready to go home. Despite my harsh review of this movie (with, might I add, absolutely no qualifications that allow me to have a respected opinion on this subject), there was one line at the very end of the film that stuck with me. The character Nescaffier (played by Steve Park) said something brilliant about being a foreigner in his final scene. Nescaffier said: “I’m not brave. I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody.” Is this not the entire essence of the human experience?

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