With the sudden death of its editor (Bill Murray), The French Dispatch is due to go to press with its final edition. Journalists Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) submit their stories, each of them a slice of life from the world of arts, politics, travel, and food.
There are few directors working today who have managed to sustain their voice and vision in the way that Wes Anderson has. More than that, you know exactly what you're getting each time you step into his inordinately fussy, extraneously decorative world. It's going to have quirky characters, sharp one-liners, it's going to have sumptuous production design, it's going to have a huge cast of well-known actors turn up for a scene or two, and if it works its charms on you, it's going to leave you panging for the world it's created that doesn't exist.
'The French Dispatch' could have been released as a limited TV series, as each of the four stories work like episodes, though it's unlikely Anderson will ever trouble himself to go to a streaming service. They're connected together in the way a magazine might have an overarching theme, but you could quite easily skip through to your favourite one and ignore the others. They're easily told apart, too.
'The Concrete Masterpiece', for example, is a funny look at a raving monster of an artist, played brilliantly by Benicio del Toro and narrated with exquisite poise by Tilda Swinton in a giant wig and false teeth. But of course. 'Notes On A Manifesto', meanwhile, is a black-and-white factual retelling of student protests in the city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom on Blasé in English) with the journalistic dispassion of a veteran writer in Frances McDormand. Owen Wilson's character is a cycling aficionado who explores the city where 'The French Dispatch' is set in a cheerfully short introductory piece. Jeffrey Wright's erudite tones ring out over 'The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner', a taut thriller - if you can imagine a Wes Anderson thriller - that also involves fine cuisine and recipes.
You get the sense that in 'The French Dispatch', Anderson as director was denied nothing and got almost everything he asked for. Again, because Anderson's work is so unapologetic, it really depends on where you fall with his work. You're either on board, latched onto the back of a little scooter, or you're falling off.
The cast, as mentioned, is massive. Saorise Ronan turns up for a scene or two as a French sex worker and it somehow works? Liev Schreiber plays a TV host who banters with Jeffrey Wright's character in an interview. Christoph Waltz has all of maybe one or two lines. Timothée Chalamet plays a preening student activist. Bill Murray's presence hangs over it all like a fatherly guide. The central cast, however, all know their roles and play them with ease and even though they rarely appear on screen together, they bounce off one another with ease. Frances McDormand's ascetic reporter stands in stark contrast to Tilda Swinton's glamourous art critic, while Jeffrey Wright and Owen Wilson appear at opposite ends of the movie, diving in and tailing out of it in completely different ways.
The music, the pretentiousness, the fussiness of it all - it can be overbearing and there's no denying that it gets lost up its own derrière on more than a few occasions, but that's just how it goes in a Wes Anderson joint.