Follow TV Tropes


Film / The French Dispatch

Go To
"It began as a holiday..."

"Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose."
Arthur Howitzer Jr.

The French Dispatch, full title The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, is a romantic comedy-drama written and directed by Wes Anderson. The film stars Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Mathieu Amalric, Jeffrey Wright and Adrien Brody, among many, many others.

An Anthology Film, the plot consists of six segments, including a travelogue and three feature stories from the final issue of the titular paper, in this format:

  • The paper is introduced by the obituary of Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), editor-in-chief of the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun - in which it is revealed that as a young man, Howitzer left Liberty for France as a holiday - and simply chose not to return, instead making money writing dispatches from France for his father's newspaper, eventually turning the Sunday supplement of the paper into The French Dispatch, a full-blown magazine with several American ex-pat contributors. After revealing Howitzer's eventual return to Kansas after his death, and his last will and testament ordering the closure of the French Dispatch, we pull back to the last day of Howitzer's life, with him working to bring to print what would become the Dispatch's last issue - the contents of which comprise the remaining bulk of the film.

  • Immediately following is the short travelogue: "The Cycling Reporter," wherein travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) gives a brief tour of 20th-century Ennui-sur-Blasé, the fictional French city where the Dispatch is located.

  • "The Concrete Masterpiece": Narrated by J.K.L. Berensen (Swinton), this story chronicles the life and artistic career of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a dangerous criminal turned abstract art sensation after art dealer Julien Cadazio (Brody) takes a liking to his work.

  • "Revisions to a Manifesto": Narrated by Lucinda Krementz (McDormand), who struggles to maintain journalistic integrity as she covers the "Chessboard Revolution" led by Zeffirelli (Chalamet). With the youth of Ennui in revolt, tensions within factions of the revolution begin boiling over as well.

  • "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner": Narrated by Roebuck Wright (Wrightinvoked), this piece starts as a dining feature before a dinner with the Commissaire (Amalric) is interrupted by a kidnapping heist.

  • The film concludes with the gathering of the employees of the French Dispatch, having discovered Howitzer dead at his desk, on what would have been his 80th birthday. After a few moments of contemplation, the assembled writers begin to work together on Howitzer's obituary - the same one heard in the Introduction.

The French Dispatch is based in part on The New Yorker, with several characters serving as direct Shout-Outs to iconic employees and amalgamations to famous journalists in general. Initially delayed by the COVID-19 Pandemic, it had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on July 12, 2021, and was theatrically released on October 22, 2021.

The French Dispatch provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Ineffective Barricade: During the presentation of Moses' final piece at the prison, Julien is informed that the prisoners would each like to share in the payment. Every prisoner. He tries to lock the door, which gets trampled (the wall next to it does as well).
  • Actor Allusion:
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Occasionally pops up in the dialogue.
    Zeffirelli: A thousand kisses later, will she still remember the taste of my tool on the tip of her tongue?
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Despite his numerous attempts at a proposal, Simone refuses to marry (or even date) Moses. Her rejection is what drives him to paint.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Why Rosenthaler brutally murdered two barkeeps. We see his two victims apparently harassing a random man, seemingly For the Evulz, but we're not given context or dialogue shortly before said two victims get murdered.
  • Angry Animalistic Growl: When Rosenthaler gets especially angry, he lets out a low growl before attacking.
  • Art Shift: "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" turns from live-action to animation during a few scenes, notably the climatic car chase.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, different aspect ratios are used in the film to Retraux effects. Most of the film is in 1.33:1, while some of the scenes in black and white use the 2.39:1 ratio.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Plenty of the French text in the film isn't translated, so a French speaker is more privy to some of the jokes. For example:
    • The Police Headquarters is said to be located on a narrow peninsula known as the "Rognure d'Ongle," which translates as "nail clippings."
  • Bilingual Dialogue: In many places, but most noticeably in scenes between Zeffirelli and Juliette: all of Zeffirelli's dialogue is in English and all of Juliette's dialogue is in French.
  • Black Comedy: At the end of the film, the staff of the Dispatch mourn Howitzer, who is laying freshly dead on his desk, mouth gaping open, before his body is covered.
  • Book Ends: The film starts by reading off Howitzer's obituary, beginning with "It began as a holiday." The final scene is of the writers of the Dispatch writing Howitzer's obituary, beginning with "It began as a holiday."
  • Brand X: The French cigarette brand "Gaullistes," standing-in for the Real Life Gauloises. Amusingly, the French word "gaulliste" means political follower of Charles de Gaulle or modern political partisan of his doctrines.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Cadazio shows his uncles a perfect drawing of a bird, done by Rosenthaler, drawn on a napkin using a matchstick. One uncle asks if he can have it and Cadazio says "of course not." In a later montage of the success of Rosenthaler's art, that same drawing sells at an auction for thousands.
    • The start of the third segment briefly makes mention of a man selling "Gemini Tooth Powder." The segment ends with an advertisement by the man.
  • Central Theme: Loneliness. It's not hammered home until the last Act but much of the film is driven by it. The introduction shows us around the city and its people, but the author never truly interacts with anyone. The mad painter in the first act and his lover/muse are pushed together by it. Many of the students in the second act felt some kind of alienation, be it from the people they rose against or each other. And, finally, the Third Act, where our protagonist got thrown in jail for the crime of trying to ease his loneliness with the wrong sex. It's revealed that one of the reasons he focused on food as his writing is because, in a world that isn't exactly welcoming to people who love differently (or even love normally), there's always a restaurant that's more than happy to give you some food as company - and as an extension, one reason why he went to France was because he'd be lonely anywhere, continually seeking out something he (and by extension, Lt. Nescaffier, and by further extension, Howitzer) is missing.
    "...seeking something missing, missing something left behind..."
  • Chess Motifs: "Revisions to a Manifesto" is in part about the "Chessboard Revolution," where students settled disputes with each other, and eventually the authorities themselves, in games of chess.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Cadazio is able to gain information on and access to Rosenthaler by offering a guard a handful of sweets.
    • Later on, he sets up an art exhibition at the asylum by bribing the guards; though the trope is subverted due to them actually being offered a decent amount of money each, for some reason it's doled out in 20-franc (roughly equivalent to 5$ at the time the movie is set) notes.
  • Conscription: Military service is required in France in this movie (which was the case in the '70s), but Mitch-Mitch (a friends of Zeffirelli) defects after witnessing unspeakable horrors in the "Mustard Region."
  • Coordinated Clothes: Zeffirelli has two followers that are always with him and end up dressing and styling their hair the same as him.
  • Couldn't Find a Lighter: Zeffirelli uses the sparking battery terminal on the radio tower to light a cigar whilst repairing it. This turns out to be a very, very bad idea.
  • Cutting the Knot: At the end of "The Concrete Masterpiece," Cadazio and company attempt to shield themselves from an impending prison riot by locking the door. The rioters respond by bursting through the wall.
  • Dead Man's Switch: A legal variant. It was listed in Howitzer's will that, after his death, publication of the Dispatch ends (after a final issue), everyone is given advance pay, and all the printing equipment be dismantled. Unlike some examples there is no indication the employees were not already aware this was the plan and none show any objection to it.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Large segments of the film are shot in monochrome to convey to the audience that what they're seeing is actually The French Dispatch's black-and-white text rendered in visual form. These sequences sometimes go from Monochrome to Color to represent photos and illustrations included with those articles as visual aids.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "The Concrete Masterpiece" is a play on the double-meaning of "concrete," as Rosenthaler's exhibition shows his true masterpieces, but they also happen to be a fresco literally painted on the room's concrete wall.
  • Downer Ending: "Revisions to a Manifesto" ends with Zeffirelli dying, and his parents tearfully identifying his body.
  • Embarrassing Slide: During Berensen's presentation on Rosenthaler, somehow a slide of a nude photo of her got mixed in.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: When Cadazio is showing Rosenthaler's art to a buyer, he excitedly relays to him what the buyer told him about how much she loves it, but pauses when he realized she related them to "frescoes." He then looks again at the paintings and realizes they're painted on the load-bearing concrete wall.
  • Famed In-Story: Howitzer, the writers of the main segments, and their subjects are this to varying degrees.
  • Fictional Pinball Game: Sans Blague has a pinball machine titled, "Modern Physics."
  • Firing Day: It's implied Howitzer regularly fires non-writer staff whenever his generous writers turn in a special edition that costs far more to print and send - he nonchalantly tells a delivery boy he's fired, and is already ready to tell him not to cry even before the waterworks start coming.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Wright unintentionally walks into the "Chicken Coop," it pans down to show the seat has "Roebuck Wright was here". He later reveals in the TV interview Framing Device that he was essentially put in there for being caught with another man.
    • When Zeffirelli climbs an antenna, a sign displays the label "éclair blanc" (supposedly a brand name). It may remind you of a song named "Le Petit Cheval"note  by Georges Brassens. In this song, the titular horse dies struck by white lightning.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: How Rosenthaler's first murders are depicted. He sees the two barkeeps apparently harassing a man, growls... and pan to butchers preparing some meat, with a voiceover describing Rosenthaler's actions matching the butchers (such as a bonesaw being used to decapitate one of the victims).
  • Gotta Pass the Class: After failing to attain his bachelor's degree, Mitch-Mitch is sent to serve three months in the military.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Lt. Nescaffier knowingly ate the poisoned food to convince the kidnappers to eat it, and when he later recovers, he says he did it simply because he didn't want to disappoint anybody.
  • Homage: The scene where the waiter climbs a series of staircases to bring refreshments to the writers is a throwback to a similar gag used in Mon Oncle.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Juliette decries Zeffirelli's idolization of French pop star Tip-Top as worshiping a frivolous symbol of capitalism... while she herself is obsessed with makeup and beauty, which is no less a symbol of capitalism.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Ennui-sur-Blasé literally means "Boredom-upon-Jaded" in French.
  • Implausible Deniability: When Rosenthaler is given a parole hearing, he tries to claim that he decapitated the two men he killed by accident.
    • He then changes his story to say that the first one was an accident, and the second one was in self-defense.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: While in prison, Julien Cadazio has "évadé fiscal" ("tax evader" in French) written on the back of his coat.
  • Ironic Echo: Arthur Howitzer Jr. has a pretty strict "no crying" rule in his workplace. This variation of the phrase is used for laughs when he tells a worker about his termination. It's later used in a more heartwarming light in the third main story, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner," where he tells a tearful Roebuck Wright not to cry, in order to encourage him to persevere after he gets arrested. It comes around a third and final time in the epilogue: when one staffer cries after Howitzer's death, she's reminded to consider the sign by another coworker; the implication being that they know that even in death, Howitzer wouldn't want people crying in his office, even in the act of mourning him.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: The various methods which the police use in order to find out where Gigi is being held involve beating, being held in ice water, being dragged down the length of a bar, through glasses and bottles, being hanged upside down, hypnosis, and being thrown from a plane.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Sazerac's segment about the town of Ennui shows they have a problem with a gang of young choir boys drunk on communion wine randomly assaulting people in the streets including Sazerac himself at the very end.
  • The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: Zigzagged. When the Commissaire and his police force discuss plans to free Gigi and attack the gangsters, the steps discussed and taken become more and more exaggerated, as it turns from planning to secure points to hiring climbers and an André the Giant-esque wrestling police officer called The Jeroboam.
  • May–December Romance: The relationship between Zeffirelli and Lucinda Krementz.
  • Medium Blending: The car chase scene near the end of Wright's story is done entirely in 2D color animation, in the style of the local cartoonist.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Cadazio does this when it's been three years since Rosenthaler's last painting, and Rosenthaler's response is to ask for another year.
  • Mind Screw: Part of Rosenthaler's backstory mentions his decline in mental health, and shows him painting a self-portrait. While looking at a second version of himself.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: It's indicated that the Police arresting the bookkeeper for the city's mobs with his records was a matter of luck. Needless to say, stopping this one arrest from destroying their entire enterprise drives the mobs' response.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Simone appears several times posing nude for Moses, and is extremely attractive.
  • Nested Story: The movie itself is showing three stories from the past of the Dispatch for its final edition, who are each narrated by its writer, and two of them are shown by being retold to a live audience.
  • Nice to the Waiter: A literal example, each day a waiter from a nearby café enters the Magazine offices with a tray of drinks ordered by the workers. They're all shown to be friendly with him and the editor even solicits his opinions on some of the articles.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mainly for the journalists.
    • Arthur Howitzer Jr. is based off New Yorker founder Harold Ross, Herbsaint Sazerac is based off New Yorker travel writer Joseph Mitchell, J.K.L. Berensen is based on Rosamond Bernier, Lucinda Krementz is based on Mavis Gallant, and Roebuck Wright is a composite of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling.
    • Julien Cadazio is based on British art dealer Joseph Duveen.
    • Part of Rosenthaler's "genius Spaniard making works while still in prison" is taken from David Alfaro Siqueiros. Rosenthaler himself bears a striking resemblance to sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
  • Overly-Long Gag: The scene in the beginning where a butler climbs several ladders and staircases in order to reach the offices.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Lt. Nescaffier is the world's best Police Food chef in France. Police Food is a very specific style of cuisine that has requirements ranging from "items you'd find lying around a police station" to "can the ingredient be opened without alerting the suspect you're tailing."
  • Period Piece: The film is set entirely in 20th-century France; one segment is set around the time of the May 68 student protests in 1968-69, while another is based on the life of Lord Duveen, a renowned art dealer during the 20th century.
  • Public Exposure: "The Concrete Masterpiece" is kickstarted when Moses Rosenthaler makes an abstract painting of his guard, Simone, naked.
  • Recurring Extra: One of the people working for the Dispatch is described as a man who never finished an article but managed to collect a paycheck from the paper for 30 years. He has almost no dialogue and is somewhere in most of the scenes in the paper's office.
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: When the kidnappers of the police commissioner's son are rightfully suspicious that the food they were given was poisoned, Lt. Nescaffier eats a bite of each dish in front of them. He is luckily rescued before he fully succumbs and recovers. Roebuck theorizes that the only reason he wasn't killed near-immediately was because the Lieutenant was a chef and had eaten a lot of things not pleasant to normal stomachs. It's also clearly shown that Nescaffier only eats a small amount of each dish (including the poisoned radishes) while the crooks consume full sized portions, the smaller dose, Roebuck's theory about his stomach and prompt medical attention then saved his life (the criminal's being left to expire if not already dead).
  • Shout-Out:
    • The titular French Dispatch (or at least, the French arm of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is a dead ringer for The New Yorker. It covers a wide range of topics both mundane (student protests, art biographies) to curiously specific (French police cuisine and the shootouts involving it, fistfights at art shows, chess as a form of protest), has a very specific, novelistic approach to its subjects (down to the pretentious punctuation and layout of The New Yorker), cartoons and covers that vary between relevant to the topic at hand or stupid puns and, of course, covers things far beyond their American city.
      • In fact, the city map shows that several streets are named after the many writers which the film draws inspiration from.
    • The scene showing a younger Rosenthaler painting a picture of himself looks very similar to this painting by Norman Rockwell.
    • One of the many covers shown during the credits depicts a pianist, slumped over at his piano with a bullet hole in the window behind him.
    • The wrecked car seen at the beginning of "Revisions to a Manifesto" bears a striking resemblance to the wrecked cars found in the destroyed French village of Oradour-Sur-Glane.
  • Terrorists Without a Cause: The student revolutionaries in Act 2 have one, but in the interest of "journalistic neutrality," it's glossed over, and even spoken over (this is Truth in Television for some The New Yorker articles, which act as if the reader is already familiar with current events and eschews recaps of political intricacies for character studies). The closest we get is that A) it's left-wing, B) student-led, and C) included "male student access to the female dorms" as part of its demands.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Tony Revolori plays a younger Moses in a flashback montage of his early life and the crime that landed him in prison. The transition back to present day has Revolori get out of his seat and Del Toro to sit in his place.
  • Tone Shift: Happens in universe. Roebuck Wright was supposed to be dining with the Commissioner of the police to sample "Police food" for a food critic section in the magazine. After appetizers are served a sudden kidnapping derails the meal and he's writing about a criminal investigation instead. Howitzer is a little annoyed about this as he expected the food article, but as Wright explains he did experience police cooking in the course of the adventure and having been shot at, involved in a car chase and had hand grenades thrown at him he'd rather write about that. There's a third tone shift as Howitzer notes Roebuck removed something from the entry and made it weaker: a melancholic exploration of being a foreigner in not just another city, but from others in general, with the implication Howitzer left Kansas for the same reason Nescaffier and Roebuck did: constantly looking for something missing in their lives.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Howitzer forbids crying in the office, to the point of putting a sign above the door. When one staffer cries after Howitzer's death, she's reminded to consider the sign.
  • Weird Currency: Rosenthaler has been incarcerated so long that he requests payment for his art in prison currency, chiefly cigarettes. Cadazio browbeats him into accepting large amounts of actual money.
  • Wham Line: During the third segment, it's nonchalantly mentioned that when the kidnappers' demands to have food were fulfilled, they force Lt. Nescaffier to eat some of the food to prove it wasn't poisoned. It was, and it was highly lethal.
  • Wretched Hive: Discussed in the third segment - organized crime was brazen enough to warrant a militarized police force, eventually escalating into war when a full list of members for the entire underworld fall into the hands of the Police. As subsequent events (his son's kidnapping) will see the Police Commissioner highly motivated it's likely those three gangs at least are out of business by the "present day" scenes.