At this point, we must accept that Wes Anderson's trademark visual whimsy is no mere affectation but a genuine fixation – as distinct a signature as Roy Lichtenstein's comic bookish Ben-Day dot paintings. And as with Lichtenstein, Anderson's personal challenge with each new feature is how he can adhere to the strict rules of his vision while giving us something different. And thus for The French Dispatch he abandons traditional feature film structure, giving us not a single narrative but a trio of stories and a couple of side bits.
Since its titular magazine – a fictitious journal based in the fictitious city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France (ha ha) and published in the technically real township of Liberty, Kansas – is obviously modeled on the New Yorker, watching Anderson's film is very much like reading an issue of the New Yorker: one story may grip you, another may bore you, the short bits will amuse you, but you really shouldn't go through the whole thing in one sitting.
Aping the New Yorker's blend of color and black and white pages, a good deal of The French Dispatch is presented in monochrome, occasionally bursting into color at key moments. Anderson's muse Bill Murray plays the editor of the magazine, while Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright play the journalists responsible for the three stories on display. Only McDormand narrates hers in traditional voiceover style; Swinton's piece is framed as an art lecture and Wright's as a TV interview. The film's "present day" is 1975, when we are informed that Murray's character has died and thus the French Dispatch must conclude, after fifty years of publication, with these three final stories.
For me, the best of the stories comes first. Titled The Concrete Masterpiece, it concerns a criminally insane murderer (Benicio del Toro, new to the Anderson world) who picks up painting at the asylum and becomes a cause célèbre. It succeeds more than the others because its narrative is strongest and because del Toro's wry, relaxed charisma is such a breath of fresh air amongst the clipped formality of his fellow cast members. (This is fitting, since his character's messy artworks are entirely un-Andersonian.) If I'm being honest, however, what lingers most from the story is the director's fetishization of his costar Léa Seydoux, both clothed and unclothed.
The other two "articles" in this filmed magazine center around Timothée Chalamet as a young revolutionary and Edward Norton as a kidnapper, respectively. I'm not sure what all three stories have in common. Maybe the vagaries of creative passion or something like that. Truth is, I don't remember much about the Chalamet story and even less about the Norton, which tells you a lot about how the film wore on me. Perhaps the whole thing is just a paean to Anderson's adopted France. At any rate, there's lots of little things to like in The French Dispatch, but in spite of Anderson's forays into b&w cinematography, segmented film structure, and nudity, his film is too embalmed to truly enjoy.