The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

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. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com 

TBT: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

In my third week of rummaging through the DVD shelves, I stumbled upon a little oldie that likely no one has ever heard of. And by ‘no one’ I mean quite literally the opposite. In fact if this is the first you’ve read about this film, don’t let the cold shoulder surprise you. 😉 Now, saying this anthology is well-known isn’t the same as saying it’s been well-received by everyone. The humor presented is of a . . . well, let me go into those details more below.

Today’s food for thought: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Serving up philosophical conversation starters since: March 31, 1983

[DVD]

E-hem. Life. It’s for the living.

Let’s sit here for a minute and bask in my incredible profundity. But in all silliness, I can’t pretend like I can compete with Monty Python‘s bizarre yet ingenious embracing of platitudes such as, “what is the meaning of life? Why are we here?” I just don’t have the talent to make the mundane seem insane.

I was here before, some time ago, attempting to soak up all that this British force (or is that farce?) of comedic nature had to offer in its final feature presentation. Forgettable feels like the wrong word to use here but I was surprised in my most recent watch how many segments I felt like I was experiencing for the first time. I think it’s true of most things Monty Python that some jokes/skits land completely firm-footed while others simply crash and burn. This is certainly true of The Meaning of Life anyway, and even while it manages to avoid by a wide margin the comedy doldrums I regret to say that I will probably be forgetting those same parts in a few weeks’ time.

Of course, the opposite still holds true. That which The Meaning of Life succeeds in parodying or, to crib a British expression, taking the piss out of, has always been difficult to scrub from the memory. As much as I might want to pressure wash the walls of my brain of the images of an engorged Mr. Creosote or that particularly hasty live organ donation scene, these images and concepts are stains I can’t get rid of. All of this is to say that when Monty Python is good, it is very, very good. Fortunately, for this last full-length feature installment, the positives (still) outweigh the negatives.

The anthology unfolds chronologically, striving to answer that ever-elusive question, and while those fish in the fish tank are never impressed by how John Cleese and his cohorts go about it, the rest of us who weren’t born with gills are more often than not intrigued by the process. It encompasses the various stages of the human experience, beginning with a segment called ‘The Miracle of Birth,’ during which it is made quite clear that the film was made in a different time given its callous attitude towards women, and concluding with a section surprisingly entitled ‘Death.’

In the meantime, we pop in on a Yorkshire family who has been burdened by a surplus of children thanks to the Catholic church’s disapproval of the use of protection; visit a British public school where boys are taught the finer points of engaging in sexual intercourse (also rugby); get invited to possibly the most inappropriately-timed birthday celebration on a War World I battlefront; learn that one doesn’t have to be dead to be an organ donor; and sit down to dine with the world’s most obese man (shudder).

Given that this is the fifth and final feature film, it’s no secret that a certain level of tolerance for racy and downright offensive, crude humor is required to make it through these bonkers 107 minutes. As well, any hope for narrative cohesion should be all but quashed from the outset. Ideally The Meaning of Life isn’t anyone’s first experience with the gang; hopefully you’ve had some previous exposure, and have come to accept certain realities about Monty Python. One of those realities is that their style values quantity over quality in terms of how gags are delivered, and while some are painfully effective — Cleese’s public school sex ed course being arguably the highlight — other segments, such as The Meaning of Life Part IV (‘Middle Age’), where a middle-aged couple visit a Medieval dungeon-themed restaurant, and the latter half of Part VI (‘The Autumn Years’), a restaurant staffer’s attempt to offer his take on the meaning of life by taking us back to his childhood home register as awkward and unfunny. And then of course there’s the realization that some of the scenes are just plain weird, a la ‘Find the Fish.’

Yet the entire package ultimately works because of the troupe’s camaraderie. Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin endlessly feed off of one another. Each have their time in the spotlight, no one seems selfish or egotistical enough to feature more prominently than another. Of course, that’s not the same as saying that all skits pay off equally, but if ever there were a group that epitomized comedic chemistry it would be this lot. The Meaning of Life might not be the most consistent production but it’s superior to the gross-out brand of comedy you’ll find in modern films.

Recommendation: Monty Python is known as one of the most influential comedic groups of all time, their impact on the world of satirical/parodical film and stagecraft at large akin to what The Beatles did for music. If that’s not enough to recommend a watch, I don’t really know what is. But I suspect these kinds of films don’t really need much of an endorsement. You’ve either seen them or you’ve given them a wide berth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

TBTrivia: John Cleese has gone on the record as saying this film was “a bit of a cock-up,” and all the other Pythons agreed that this film is not of the same quality as their previous two (The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail). 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.aveleyman.com; http://www.imdb.com