It feels really nice to start the new year with a post about a great film by one of my favourite directors in the form of Wes Anderson. I’m not going to do a movie roundup for December 2021, because I only watched a couple of films after I did my midpoint movie roundup. I’ll just lump them in with January’s batch when I get around to it. However, I did want to spend some time on this film because it really would’ve been in my top five for 2021 had I seen it sooner. Perhaps it will make my top five for 2022.
The French Dispatch is the name of a fictitious magazine like the The New Yorker but based in the equally fictitious French town of Ennui which has the river Blasé running through it. Already if we were playing Wes Anderson bingo we’d tick off two boxes – one for printed text and one for ennui which appears in many of his movies. I’ll continue to play Wes Anderson bingo as we progress through this post, indicated by bracketed ticks, since The French Dispatch, his tenth film, is to my mind the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson films.
The Dispatch’s band of quirky writers go out in search of stories, three of which make up this film. But first we learn that the magazine, founded by a young Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) (tick) in 1925 after his vacation turned into a relocation to Ennui-sur-Blasé, is coming to the end of its fifty-year run following Howitzer’s funeral (tick) and a decree in his will to stop the publication.
The movie is structured to represent the magazine’s final issue, including a quick travelogue by the cycling writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) (tick – for a Wilson brother) to introduce the town and the magazine’s tone; and three long feature articles. The first feature involves the story of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a convicted psychopath who becomes a world-famous modern artist while in prison, the second involves political correspondent Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reporting on a student uprising, and in the third food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) supposedly reports on the greatest chef of police cuisine but the story soon changes to cover an action-packed kidnap and rescue mixing live action with animation (tick).
There’s the usual ensemble cast (tick) of familiar faces who all seem to be eager to shine for the director and put in some outstandingly idiosyncratic performances, the keen eye for symmetry which makes my little trace of OCD sing happy songs (tick), long zooms (tick), quick pans (tick), frames within frames (tick) and more ‘doll’s house’ set designs than you can shake a beret at (tick). In fact, if it wasn’t for the long wait for Willem Dafoe (tick) and a father-son relationship (tick) to turn up, the game of bingo would’ve been done and dusted in the first half hour. However, without these trimmings and the director’s detail-obsessed play with aspect ratios and shifts from black and white to colour, the film would probably feel like a narratively and tonally disjointed affair with only the premise of the fact that the three individually strong stories all feature in the fictional magazine to hold it together.
I have read one reviewer (in a leading UK newspaper) describing the film as ‘punchable’ i.e. they seem to have found absolutely no joy in Anderson’s artifice and disliked the need to pay attention and think for yourself. To which I say, what did you expect? This is a magical film by perhaps the best-established auteur of our generation and exists as a work of art as much as it does a feature film. You have to have lived under a rock not to at least be aware of his films, even if you have never seen one before. Go and watch Bad Boys for Life if you can’t take the sensory extravagance of The French Dispatch.
There are some spoilers in the next bit, where I will talk briefly about the three main segments of the film, beyond the fact that there’s a stage play in the movie (tick).
The story of Moses Rosenthaler is recanted from a lectern at some kind of conference by art historian J. K. L. Berensen played by an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton in fine form. Moses owes his career to his muse Simone played sternly by Léa Seydoux (Spectre, No Time to Die) a smartly uniformed (tick) guard at the prison in which he is held. In an initially confusing scene young Moses (Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel) hits his 11th year of incarceration and Benicio Del Toro enters, takes the ID tag from around Rosenthaler’s neck, puts it on and takes his seat. It’s typical of how this movie plays with the relationship between the viewer and the medium. As well as Simone, art-dealer and fellow inmate Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) (tick) recognises Moses’ talent and invests time and money in building up the artists career. However, when Moses’s work, on the concrete walls of the prison, is revealed to a major collector, the show rapidly descends into a slow-motion chaos foreshadowed in earlier static scenes.
In the second story, McDormand’s character falls into bed with Zeffirelli, played by Dune‘s Timothée Chalamet, the much younger leader of the students. She helps him write his manifesto but realises she is a third wheel when Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) a rival student leader argues passionately that Zeffirelli’s manifesto, especially the added appendices, is largely tripe. A stand-off on the barricades with the French police is negotiated via a symbolic and literal game of chess but quickly turns into a tear-gas engulfed riot. The students’ stand devolves into nothing but the subject of novelty tee-shirts and mugs. Zeffirelli and Juliette ride off together into the sunset on a scooter. They may have failed in their mission but they found young love (tick).
The third and final story, has an enigmatically emotional performance from Jeffrey Wright (Westworld), as an exiled homosexual food writer being interviewed on a talk show. He narrates word for word his article for the Dispatch about renowned police chef Lieutenant Nescaffier (Steve Park). A meal cooked by Nescaffier with Police Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) turns into a shoot out and madcap car chase after the Commissaire’s young son. Defoe makes a cameo appearance as Albert ‘the Abacus’ a mobster accountant captured in a previous police operation against organised crime in Ennui, and Edward Norton appears as leader of the kidnappers with fellow Anderson veteran Saoirse Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel) having an even smaller cameo as a junkie showgirl.
In all three stories the characters discuss serious subjects, such as the tricky independent role of the reporter during conflict, what makes good art, the struggles suffered by individuals deemed as different from the norm, while within their respective stylised comedy circumstances and their actions hide suppressed emotions and sentiment is rationed (Howitzer’s motto is ‘No Crying’). There is a weight and depth to this film that lives beyond the first viewing and all the ticking off of Anderson bingo boxes.