Movie Review: The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is a hopeless romantic and I don’t mean in the sense of someone who pines for that person they hope to spend their whole life with (although his films are full of them). Wes Anderson is a man deeply in love with the written word and print publications and the eras when they mattered; with the tactile quality of the objects we have replaced with their digital counterparts (records, record players, books, etc.); with the notions of friendship, loyalty, trust and elegance; with the idea of taking some time to stop and smell the coffee (or enjoy a delicately crafted fine meal). His films —but especially The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018, his two stop-motion animation films), and now The French Dispatch— are carefully crafted, almost artisanal works, their frames crammed with so much visual detail that it requires several viewings to pick them apart. Anderson is also a man deeply in love with filmic language: he deploys a smorgasbord of visual styles and aspect ratios to tell his story…or in the case of The French Dispatch multiple stories.

Inspired by The New Yorker and the many writers who wrote for it in the 50s, 60s and 70s (including James Baldwin) and its equally legendary editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, the fictional The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is edited out of a ramshackle building in the equally fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (actually Montmartre) buy discount viagra by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray at his most low-key). He has gathered under his wing a unique collection of eccentric expat collaborators, from travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) to art critic J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and food journalist (and James canadian levitra Baldwin stand-in) Roebuck Wright (the wonderful Jeffrey Wright) who Howitzer springs out of jail with a job opportunity.

The film brings to life the final issue of the magazine, beginning with Horowitz’ obituary (read by Anjelica Huston) whose last wish was to shut down the magazine upon his death. That obituary is soon followed by Sazerac’s travel column: a bike tour through their adopted city’s seamier side, ending in the best pratfall since Buster Keaton’s heyday. Once this tongue-in-cheek backstory is taken care of, Anderson flips the page (metaphorically, of course) to that issue’s first of three feature stories announced on-screen as “The Concrete Masterpiece” (pages in the magazine, 5-34, and author included in the title card). Re-imagined as a conference presented by its author, J.L.K. Berensen, “The Concrete Masterpiece” tells the story of Mexican-Jewish convicted murderer Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro, in his first collaboration with Anderson), his model and muse, prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) and the efforts of briefly jailed arts collector and dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) to get Moses out of jail and turn him into an art world phenomenon. The story concludes with the unveiling of Rosenthal’s masterpiece, the outrage of the guests invited to the event and a prison riot.

Next up, Anderson’s tribute within a tribute, this one to the films of the French New Wave and other European New Waves of the 60s: “Revisions to a Manifesto.” Reported by Krementz, the story tells of the May 1968 Paris-like student protests in Ennui-sur-Blasé against the establishment and in favor of the male students right to gain access to the girls’ dormitories. Krementz has no qualms about inserting herself in the story a la Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson, bedding Zeffirelli, the chess-loving student protester played by Timothée Chalamet, and editing and re-writing the protesters’ manifesto. Although not without its quirks, “Revisions to a Manifesto” is the most-straightforward, less whimsical of the three stories; it’s also the most romantic, a story about May-December relationships and the young men and women threatened by them, full of cigarette-smoke filled rooms and cafés and chess matches that may determine the outcome of one protest. It is, in fact, the most French of all three stories to the point that I was expecting a much younger Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anna Karina to walk in at any moment with Godard and Raoul Coutard, camera in hand, tagging right behind.

(From L-R): Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” the final story, is The French Dispatch’s pièce de résistance, the most whimsical out-there of the trio, the one where Anderson keeps his audiences most on their toes by throwing everything at them, from a framing device inside a television studio to color and black and white photography to animation. Challenged by a Dick Cavett-like talk show host (Leiv Schreiber) to recite one of his feature stories for the magazine from memory, Roebuck Wright proceeds to tell the story of how his profile of Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park), the legendary chef for the town’s police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and the entire police force, turned into a kidnapping story when the commissioner’s son is held hostage by a cadre of former police officers and other ruffians. As in the other two tales, we are treated to scenes of Horowitz’ editing or commenting on his writer’s work, a give-and-take that captures the essence of how editors interact with and can make established, published writers even better.

(From L-R): Hippolyte Girardot, Stephen Park, Jeffrey Wright and Mathieu Amalric in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The film ends with a sort of editor’s note as the staff gathers in Horowitz’s office to mourn their editor and father figure and to discuss that last edition that has been enacted for us. But Anderson and his fellow conspirators, Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness, are also mourning if not the end of an era, the still precarious situation many surviving print publications face at the hands of hedge and vulture funds as well as the loss of a literary tradition, one that had as much respect for the written word as for the writers, designers, editors, photographers and printers who brought those stories to life. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch balances its whimsy with a deep sense of melancholia and loss.

Not only does Anderson pack his frames with visual wonders but he also overstuffs his films with a Rolodex-worth of actors that have worked with him in past films as well as a few new accomplices (including the ones already mentioned), most in blink and you will miss them cameos: Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Griffin Dunne and Christoph Waltz, among others. The casting comes close to being too gimmicky, the live action answer to the “identify that voice” game we play when watching the latest from Pixar or any other animated film. And as much as I enjoyed these stories, I also wish Anderson had spent more time with their editor and his quirky crew of writers, one that pays more than a passing resemblance to the crew gathered around the Jacques Cousteau-like title character (also played by Bill Murray) in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004). 

But be that as it may: The French Dispatch is a delicious, at times bittersweet, concoction, a feast for the eyes and ears from an artist who, like Pedro Almodóvar, has stayed true to his vision and style film after film. What is that word the French use to classify such filmmakers? Ah, yes. An auteur.

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