If you’re here for a traditional film review of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch — one with a full, detailed plot synopsis — you’ll have to read other reviews. I don’t envy any film critic who has tried to make sense of this story’s myriad narrative threads; I’d be hard-pressed to think of a movie with a more complicated plot.

If this sentence diagrammed by Elizabeth Moss looks complicated, imagine an outline of this movie’s narrative! [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Suffice it to say that the movie’s a tribute to — or better, a revelry in — art-and-culture magazines like The New Yorker.

It begins with the occasion of a legendary editor’s passing: R.I.P., Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, of course). Howitzer has been the master of The French Dispatch — an American magazine published in a fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. He leaves behind a crowd of world-famous journalists. And they’re appropriately despondent, knowing that his departure marks the end of more than just a magazine.

Then, we jump back to the beginning of production for the Dispatch‘s final issue, and follow a motley crew of adventurous journalists on various missions to capture big stories.

Under pressure to cut back budgets, Arthur Howitzer (Bill Murray) fires an employee. [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Each story is detailed enough to stand alone as a memorable Wes Anderson feature:

  • a whirlwind tour, with a bicyclist guide (Owen Wilson), of Paris’s least-romantic sights, sounds, and smells;
  • a portrait of an incarcerated serial killer (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes an art-world sensation when he paints abstract nudes of his prison guard and muse (Lea Seydoux);
  • an investigative report on a student protest over the separation of boys’ and girls’ dormitories, in which the journalist (Frances McDormand) becomes romantically involved with her very young subject (Timothy Chalamet, of course); and
  • a frantic rescue mission of a politician’s son from a dangerous gang, in which a gourmet chef (Stephen Park) plays a crucial role.
Zeferelli (Timothy Chalamet) argues with fellow protestors about the content of their manifesto-in-progress. [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Wait — did I just contradict myself? Isn’t that a plot synopsis?

Not hardly. Those lines barely scratch the surface of this deep well of storytelling. But there’s so much more than storytelling to talk about when it comes to The French Dispatch. The first viewing may feel less like moviegoing and more like an immersion in a Wes Anderson amusement park. It’s an astonishing — and surely, for some, off-putting — cinematic achievement: it is, by far, the most extravagantly decorated, narratively complicated tapestry of eccentric characters, accelerated storylines, cinematographic techniques, shifting aspect ratios, and elaborately mapped environments that this polarizing filmmaker has yet constructed.

How many adjectives does it take to describe the spectacle of Wes Anderson’s Paris? [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

I say constructed rather than filmed because the movie feels more a massive contraption than a movie. I’ve become preoccupied with tracking how other cinephiles are attempting to describe the experience:

At RogerEbert.com, Sheila O’Malley compares The French Dispatch to the insides of an elaborate clock: “a dizzying array of whirring intersecting teeny tiny parts” that “ticks forward relentlessly, never stopping to breathe, barely pausing for reflection.” At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson, bemused but unenthusiastic, says it’s “nostalgic, a little weird, visually sumptuous.”

And The New Yorker‘s own Richard Brody, ecstatic, writes with an effusive energy that recalls the rush of the movie itself:

The French Dispatch contains an overwhelming and sumptuous profusion of details. This is true of its décor and costumes, its variety of narrative forms and techniques (live action, animation, split screens, flashbacks, and leaps ahead, among many others), its playful breaking of the dramatic frame with reflexive gestures and conspicuous stagecraft, its aphoristic and whiz-bang dialogue, and the range of its performances, which veer in a heartbeat from the outlandishly facetious to the painfully candid. Far from being an inert candy box or display case, the movie bursts and leaps with a sense of immediacy and impulsivity; the script … bubbles over with the sense of joy found in discovery and invention. Even its static elements are set awhirl — actions and dialogue performed straight into the camera, scenes of people sitting at tables joined with rapid and rhythmically off-kilter editing, tableaux vivants that freeze scenes of turmoil into contemplative wonders — and take flight by way of a briskly moving camera.

For all its meticulous preparation, the movie swings, spontaneous, unhinged….

And he’s just getting warmed up. Soon, he’ll issue a warning: “On first viewing, audience members run the risk of having their perceptual circuits shorted.”

Consider yourself doubly cautioned. I come away from my first viewing reeling at the thought of the amount of writing, art-department brainstorming, storyboarding, set construction, and editing that must be involved in a production like this. We are finally seeing what Wes Anderson will do when fully unleashed — apparently able to cast any actor he wishes, drawing from what appears to be a limitless reservoir of resources. With most talented filmmakers, the success of a modest early feature (in this case, Bottle Rocket) leads to an increase in their resources, and that too often leads to a loss of aesthetic focus and a dilution of artistic vision. But every time Anderson’s movies get bigger, they show that he becomes even more involved in every detail, even more enthusiastic about a design that demonstrates structural integrity. (For proof, consider the massive book on Anderson’s Isle of Dogs written by Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson, which will convince you that a whole film-studies program could be built on just one of Anderson’s movies.)

Sure, it’s worth asking if Anderson’s exponential leaps into projects of ever more bewildering complexity won’t ultimately alienate most audiences, even some of his longtime fans. How many viewers are willing to give these movies the kind of long-term attention they require?

But one shouldn’t fault great literature because readers have poor attention spans. Films like The French Dispatch are not designed for “love at first sight.” To see this movie is to be invited into a relationship; it’s not meant to be a one-time transaction. If you don’t understand that going in, well… you may want to stick to more elementary entertainment. Anderson is devoting every resource at his disposal to the realization of grander visions, and they’ve become so ambitious that the results are becoming more like museums than paintings, more like restaurants with multi-faceted menus than mere meals.

Stephen Park plays Chef Nescaffier, who cooks up a storm but says very little… until he suddenly says a great deal.  [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

Bringing to life a big-screen city unlike any we’ve seen before, Anderson has built himself the biggest Parisian playground since Jacques Tati doomed himself to financial ruin erecting the stages for his masterpiece Playtime. And, after cinephiles have had years to examine many aspects of its architecture and find their way into meaningful engagement with its characters and storylines, The French Dispatch may have a reputation in film history similar to Tati’s masterful folly. The first viewing is like catching an aerial view of a bustling city. Second, third, and eleventh viewings will draw us to descend into the avenues, pick particular characters for our focus, follow them around, and discover subtler nuances in their stories.

So, did I emerge from this first screening of The French Dispatch enthusiastic and overjoyed? No, I’m not there yet.

At this writing, I’ve seen the film once, and I’m dizzy. It’s possible, I suppose, that I’ll end up more frustrated than fond of this film. It’s as preoccupied with its own architecture as it is with intricate storytelling, so labyrinthine and relentlessly busy that it makes The Grand Budapest Hotel look as quaint as a single episode of Only Murders In the Building.

As the most narrated of any Anderson film, with a screenplay that must be the size of an encyclopedia, it’s seems more exhausting than exhilarating. And it’s not unreasonable to sniff something vaguely show-offy about a movie like this so overstuffed with celebrities who only get a line or two. It’s as if this Willy Wonka is just so high on his own candy-colored Rolodex that he can’t resist reminding us how many big names will do whatever he asks on a moment’s notice. He’s on a sugar high of Pure Imagination, and it’s almost impossible to discern between self-indulgence and genius.

A print edition of Wes Anderson’s screenplay (based on a story he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman) would be what they call “a doorstop.” [Image from the KinoCheck International trailer.]

But I won’t say I’m disappointed — because I’ve learned my lesson.

I went from scoffing at Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou at my first viewing to blinking back tears of joy by the third viewing, where I felt a deep and soulful connection to its melancholic antihero, and started sensing profound poetry in what had at first felt like reckless tangents. I came away from The Grand Budapest Hotel complaining about how I wanted Anderson to go back to intimate, character-focused storytelling, but now I eagerly plunge back into its storybook to enjoy new epiphanies every time. But this first viewing of The French Dispatch felt like flipping through a massive coffee-table-book treasury of The Best of The New Yorker; I suspect that I’m holding in my hands a treasure trove of big-screen reading that will keep me busy for years to come.

So, if I were you, I’d be profoundly skeptical of any immediate assessment of The French Dispatch from a one-time viewer. Critics have been given a whirlwind golf-cart tour of Disneyland without being granted the time to explore, to spend time in the various exhibits, to go on the rides with friends and strangers. In my opinion, we’re not ready to proclaim a judgment. I know because I used to be one of those impulsive, first-viewing judges, and I ended up retracting so many of my first-impression reviews, realizing to my regret that they weren’t really reviews at all, but reactions. Wes Anderson deserves better than reactions. Considering the amount of love lavished upon this production at every level, The French Dispatch deserves our curiosity, our careful attention, and a long-term commitment. I’m confident it won’t let us down.

[Coming soon: Part Two — my second experience of The French Dispatch. This time I was better prepared.]