The French Dispatch Is Short of Masterpiece Status

THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s love letter to journalism especially The New Yorker, is a mostly good film that’s well worth the wait.

This film is a series of vignettes focusing on a travelogue, art, student protests, and a police kidnapping. The four stories come from the final issue of The French Dispatch, based in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Outside of the city, nothing ties them together. Together, the vignettes do feature an all-star cast. It’s just unfortunate that not everyone gets their due. Some people are basically blink-and-miss it! Anderson uses the fictional city to stand in for the entire country. Angoulême serves as shooting location on screen.

Bill Murray in The French Dispatch
Bill Murray in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

When Kansas-born editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) dies, the staff gathers around to write his obituary. The audience doesn’t get to learn much about the editor aside from the film’s prologue. It’s a shame because even a fictional biopic would be exciting to watch! We first get to watch Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) bike around the city in his travelogue for “The Cycling Reporter.” J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) revisits the story of a criminally insane painter in “The Concrete Masterpiece.” Lucinda Krementz (Frances Mcdormand) profiles student revolutionaries for “Revisions to a Manifesto.” Finally, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” mixes it up with police, drugs, kidnapping, and cooking.

All of the journalists have real-life counterparts. Arthur Howitzer Jr. is a combo of both Harold Ross and William Shawn. Herbsaint Sazerac stands in for Joseph Mitchell and Luc Sante. Berensen is a stand-in for lecturer/writer Rosamond Bernier. Krementz stands in for Mavis Gallant. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) is a mixture of James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling, and Tennessee Williams.

Wes Anderson reteams with a number of his regular repertory players either in major, supporting, or cameo roles in his first film since 2018’s Isle of Dogs. Others work with the filmmaker here for the first time. I’ll get into a major casting issue in a moment but The French Dispatch features everything we’ve come to enjoy about Wes Anderson movies. You couldn’t make this film and not cast Bill Murray! It simply wouldn’t be an Anderson movie otherwise.

I like the fact that this film is a love letter to journalism. Okay, French journalism if we want to be precise. But again, there are so many stories to tell and not enough time. But for the film’s brevity, it works. I mean, you could try and stretch some of the vignettes into a longer feature but it wouldn’t necessarily work. You never really see enough short stories being told during a longer feature film. Anderson beautifully arranges the film in a way in which it works and features the classic Wes Anderson touch that we all know and love.

A major problem with the film comes in the casting of both Benicio del Toro and Tony Revolori as incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler. The film refers to Rosenthaler as a Jewish-Mexican. Unfortunately, as is the usual Hollywood custom, neither actor is Jewish. Given the Mexico factor, a better effort could be made to cast Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews. It is not too much to ask for, is it? This is where The French Dispatch misses on every level possible! If you’re writing a character as Jewish, please make a good effort to at least cast a Jewish actor. This doesn’t even take into account that his character is a murderer. I’m not discounting that there are Jewish criminals in existence. Overall, this character is not an example of positive Jewish representation.

The French Dispatch
(From L-R): Tilda Swinton, Lois Smith, Adrien Brody, Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

Now we come to casting issue #2. Tilda Swinton is a fine actor. However, it isn’t lost on me that Tilda Swinton is essentially playing a Jewish journalist in the film. This is going off both the character name and the real-life journalist who inspired the character. Swinton, to my knowledge, is not Jewish. I know there’s this unwritten rule about not letting Jewish women play Jewish women on screen but enough is enough! There is going to be a film where Jewish women will be cast as Jewish women but this is not that film. How unfortunate.

Thankfully, Anderson gets it right by casting Adrien Brody as art dealer Julien Cadazio. Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban also portray Uncles Joe and Nick, respectively. Cadazio is based on a Jewish art dealer in real life so it’s important to get the casting right.

There are subtitles in the film. Unfortunately, the bottom of the screen got cut off during the screening I attended. As such, you couldn’t completely make out the complete text of what was said.

The French Dispatch is an entertaining film with the classic Wes Anderson touch but casting non-Jews as Jews is something that cannot be ignored. It’s a shame because this film would otherwise be a masterpiece.

CAST: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Angelica Huston

Searchlight Pictures releases The French Dispatch in theaters on October 22, 2021. The French Dispatch screened during the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival in the Gala Presentations program.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.