Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)
Written by: Wes Anderson
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.
The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.
Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.
It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.
Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.
From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.
Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.
Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist.
While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again.
If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .
Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it.
Running Time: 107 mins.
Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”
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