Movie Review: The French Dispatch

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. We have finally achieved peak Wes Anderson. The French Dispatch is, simply stated, the most Wes Anderson movie of all time.

They say satire is a form of flattery. I think there is truth in this, and Wes Anderson is no stranger to being parodied. An artist can only really be parodied if they have managed to cultivate a distinct recognizable style. In Anderson’s case, that style has never been more confidently on display than with The French Dispatch, a film whose own trailer felt like a parody of Wes Anderson films.

However it would be a mistake to paint the film in this light. In truth The French Dispatch is Anderson’s most challenging film yet. Told as a series of three vignettes, the story is a love letter to mid-20th century essayists. If you are not a fan of The New Yorker or have never read James Baldwin, a lot of it will go over your head. Though less accessible than his previous films, it preserves his signature visual style, subtle offbeat humor, and powerful use of music.

The casting is basically an invite list for a red carpet event. Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Benecio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Christoph Waltz, Jeffrey Wright, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Liev Schreiber, Timothee Chalamet — I’m probably forgetting a bunch. Everyone fits their roles like a glove. Anderson’s direction is so solid that often all it takes is a brief glance or pause to give a scene its humor or emotional punch.

In truth, the writing itself is probably the best ‘character’ in the film. Each vignette leaves a distinct impression. The content of each narrative isn’t really the point. Rather the medium is the message, and in this case it is the written word that Anderson celebrates. It starts with an economical but pithy introduction to the setting, a small city in post-war France, by Owen Wilson’s take on Joseph Mitchell. Then we get probably what will be most people’s favorite story, the tale of the crazy artist in a prison played by Benicio del Toro. It is very funny but also quietly moving in parts. The second story, a tale of a student revolt led by Timothee Chalamet, was my least favorite though it has the best music. Frances McDormand carries this section with her measured performance as a seasoned journalist. The power of writing itself is most on display in the third story of the Police Chef and the kidnapping. Jeffrey Wright was fantastic here. Everything from his choice of framing a food review the way he does to his disagreement with Bill Murray about his article’s strongest point serves to emphasize Anderson’s theme about the power of text.

I adored this film. What it lacks in pathos compared to Anderson’s earlier works it makes up for in beauty. French Dispatch is visually Anderson’s best work with its variety of vivid and evocative set designs. The costume work is also inspired. There’s even a fun brief animated section. The film’s amazing sense of style allows it to work on multiple levels. It is a fantastic comedy, but also a very smart examination of the art of writing. The film both satirizes writers for their pretentiousness while also displaying great empathy and reverence for what they give back to the world. French Dispatch is not for everyone (none of Anderson’s stuff is) but if it is for you, you’ll likely want to watch it multiple times to appreciate all the details.

Grade: A



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“If you wish to be a writer, write.” ~ Epictetus