Images in Review: ‘The French Dispatch’ explores ennui in Ennui

Justin Piccininni and Katya Ulyanov

Wes Anderson, the renowned indie director whose eccentric style has earned him a cult-like following, has applied his idiosyncratic style to a particularly fitting context: journalism. The French Dispatch centers on the titular newspaper, an English-language American-expatriate-run report on life in (big E) Ennui, France, as a vehicle to explore the theme of (little e) ennui — a feeling of bored listlessness. The French Dispatch presents three stories — each meant to represent different newspaper articles — about finding meaning in our oftentimes dull, modern lives. 

The first story, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” chronicles the life of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a tormented Jewish-Mexican artist serving a 40-year prison sentence for a double homicide who struggles with finding both inspiration for his art and the will to live. He finds solace in prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux), who becomes his muse for a striking series of impressionistic nude portraits. 

In classic Anderson style, viewers are treated to an assortment of artistic and storytelling elements that keep each scene unique and clever. “The Concrete Masterpiece” is framed through a lecture delivered by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), the journalist documenting the story. In other sections, exposition occurs through similarly unconventional modes: stage plays, action scenes adapted into 2D and stop-motion animation, and past events recounted through the lens of a retro radio show. The last is even complete with a commercial break for a vintage brand toothpaste. 

The second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” centers around a group of student revolutionaries led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), documented by a French Dispatch journalist, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). The university students are motivated to undo the most pressing source of youth ennui ­— the prohibition of male students from female dorms. The young visionaries get ahead of themselves, however, and the movement quickly mutates into a city-wide rebellion. 

The last story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” recounts a chaotic, very Andersonian plot involving Dispatch journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) visiting the table of  famous gastronomic chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Mark), a fellow expatriate who works for the central command police station in Ennui. The story explores the art of cooking and its relationship to other creative pursuits, while an intricate and at-times absurd plot unfolds simultaneously following the kidnapping of the police commissioner’s son. If that sounds hard to follow, good ­— this is a hallmark of Anderson’s style, and this particular story gives Anderson at his most Andersonian.  

The movie flows seamlessly from one segment’s aesthetic to the next. More particularly,  it puts a clever spin on Anderson’s tendency to punctuate each film with a distinct color scheme. Indeed, The French Dispatch seems to have several distinct but overlapping palettes, one for each story, separated by long stretches scenes completely in black-and-white,  a subtle nod to the classic-era films that inspire Anderson’s work. It also immerses the audience in the visual world of a printed newspaper, an experience further supported by newspaper-like  illustrations and animations. Anderson couples this newsprint aesthetic by having each section reflect the distinct writing styles of the individual staff writers. When colors do appear, the scene gains special meaning: in a particularly abstract scene from “Revisions to a Manifesto,” Zeferelli and Juliette (his rival-turned-lover) speed off on a moped — the young idealists meet the wind in black and white, but are followed by a passionate red glow. 

While being pretentiously artistic is an Anderson hallmark, The French Dispatch is at times oversaturated with its admittedly clever and gorgeous visuals, making it difficult for audience members to truly focus on the plot itself. Viewers, especially those unfamiliar with Anderson’s directorial style, may find themselves requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate — or even comprehend —  every scene. 

The final story highlights some of the problems that arise when Anderson can’t nail the balance between story and style. Although obliquely related to the themes of the first two stories, “The Police Commissioner” fails as an exploration of ennui, mostly because there is simply too much to keep track of in the plot. This is disappointing, as the rest of The French Dispatch is so pointed about “ennui.”

Nonetheless, the individual plotlines perfectly complement Anderson’s style of romanticizing the mundane, and deemphasizing the dramatic. Much in the way that journalistic integrity is supposed to prevent journalists from having a biased, emotional attachment to their subjects, Anderson maintains a distant attitude toward the film events. The film has a c’est la vie attitude, bringing a realistic tone to the whimsical storylines and vibrant sets. 

Although each of the three stories allow the audience ample time to get to know and empathize with the characters, they never dwell on the characters as their articles come to conclusion: Deaths are treated without fanfare, and endings are not dwelled upon as Anderson speeds further down the newspaper column.

The ever-present ennui permeates through the Dispatch’s journalists, too; a common thread between the stories is the difficulties of a life devoted to writing. The expatriate journalists have given up life in America in search of, well, something, and Anderson’s main preoccupation is with finding, or dispelling the existence of, that elusive something. The youth revolutionaries grasp it, if only for a few short months. Rosenthaler has it as long as he has Simone. Everyone in The French Dispatch is searching for meaning, but meaning is fleeting for all. 

If meaning is unattainable for each character, the film then focuses on the beauty and immortality of the art that results from the individual efforts of the articles’ subjects and the collective efforts of the team of journalists. Ultimately, The French Dispatch brings out the contradiction of searching for deeper meaning, and producing something that will outlive oneself. Perhaps only by oversaturating his work with artistic elements can Anderson force his audience to truly contemplate the relationship between the art and the characters surrounded by it. All in all, though it requires careful attention and analysis, this film, like most of Anderson’s others, is sure to become a cult classic.