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The French Dispatch review – Wes Anderson’s reverent ode to print journalism

The writer-director's ambitious 10th feature, his most idiosyncratic work yet, is a charming buffet of unabashed Francophilia

Wes Anderson constructs a reverent ode to print journalism in the ambitious, Francophilic The French Dispatch. Sweet and delicate like a freshly baked croissant on a Parisian morning, the director’s 10th feature traverses the fine line between spectacle and storytelling. It’s unlikely to win over anyone who can’t find the appeal of Anderson’s distinctive brand of filmmaking, but is bound to delight those who can’t get enough of it.

Replicating the feeling of flicking through a magazine, the film is split into three stories, along with a travelogue, a prologue and an epilogue that establish the team of writers behind the foreign outpost of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun newspaper. On the passing of the bureau’s intimidating but caring editor-in-chief, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), his dedicated staff put together a final issue of the magazine in tribute.

It begins with a passage from cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), who introduces the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé and all of its idiosyncrasies. Sazerac paints a pretty bleak picture of the town – rats plague public transport, choir boys terrorise passersby in the night, and an average of 8.25 bodies are pulled from the river every week – but it’s also full of life and colour.

Meanwhile, arts reporter J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) gives acclaim to incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) and the complicated relationship with his muse Simone (Léa Seydoux), political journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) gets caught up with student activists Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), and food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) meets police chef Lt. Nescafier (Stephen Park).

Every new addition to Anderson’s filmography begs the question: How can Wes Anderson be more Andersonian? Quite easily, it appears. The perfect symmetry, confectionary-coloured production design and on-brand typefaces (you know the ones) remain, but the director also surprises with extra techniques in his arsenal. Scenes flit between black-and-white and colour, time momentarily stops – not as a freeze frame but by having the actors literally stand still – at the peak of action, and there’s even an animated car chase. The newest members of the ever-expanding Anderson crew (Del Toro, Chalamet and Wright, to name a few) also fit in seamlessly, delivering the whip-fast, sharp dialogue with ease.

Like all of his films, Anderson creates The French Dispatch’s lived-in world through extreme specificity. There are the ominous references to a war in the “Mustard Region” and a pop singer called Tip Top (voiced by Jarvis Cocker) that you would only notice from a throwaway line and a poster in the background. It’s all completely charming, as the director makes slapstick feel highbrow, but the film’s comedy is also punctuated by moments of gravity, like Saoirse Ronan’s showgirl singing a lullaby or Nescafier tearfully marvelling at his discovery of a new taste.

It’s perhaps most comparable in scale and scope to The Grand Budapest Hotel, though The French Dispatch doesn’t quite achieve that same level of pathos, if only because it packs multiple stories with rotating casts into a tight 100 minutes. Nevertheless, the best pieces of work always leave you hungry for more, and The French Dispatch is a treat to sample time and time again.

The French Dispatch was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 22 October.

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