THE FRENCH DISPATCH
(***½)-VITO CARLI

"Anderson tells the stories using almost every imaginable form and or technique(s)..."

French Dispatch Has the Write Stuff

(111921) Like many of the other films by writer/director Wes Anderson (it has the most in common with The Mighty Tenenbaums), The French Dispatch contains many familiar faces from his other films (such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody), as well as his customary eccentric characters, absurd situations, stunningly attractive set designs, symmetrical shot compositions, and amusing social observations.

It has gotten long past the point that Anderson’s films have become a genre unto themselves (like Woody Allen’s films used to be). Every year I look forward to seeing a new one.

His impact on cinema/popular culture and is undeniable. I once saw an excellent art exhibit in Pilsen, and all of the art pieces featured goofy characters from Wes’s films. Also, South Park devoted a whole segment to parodying his style (they did the same thing with Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino.)

The French Dispatch is a clever and visually arresting anthology film which movingly laments the death of a particular feature magazine and perhaps magazines in general. The magazine that the story revolves around with its sophisticated image and dry humor cover cartoons was undoubtedly inspired by the New Yorker.

But unlike The New Yorker, The French Dispatch is located in France. It is based in the made-up town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, where young Howitzer was planning a temporary vacation there but ended up staying forever in order to transform the Sunday supplement of a newspaper into a literate and prize-winning regular collection of travel stories

The movie starts out with the premise that Arthur Howitzer, Jr., a respected magazine editor who is dying, (perfectly played by Bill Murray) wants to put out one last issue which reprints three of the best stories.

Each vignette in the film depicts a magazine story narrated by its writer. Not every story is equally good, but the segment involving a prison artist might be the best half hour of film I have seen all year.

The vignette is narrated by esteemed art critic/historian J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). She talks about how she met Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a psychologically unhinged man who becomes a world-famous artist while incarcerated for murder for life in a high-security prison in Ennui. Moses falls madly in love with the enigmatic but sexy prison guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux from Blue is the Warmest Color), and it is easy to see why.

Simone is an unusually quirky muse and person. She happily poses for Moses and encourages him in his painting (His abstract Jackson Pollack like paintings look nothing like her). Although she is soft spoken and quiet, she sometimes bosses him around as if she is a dominatrix and he is a slave. Although she proclaims she does not love him, they definitely have a strong emotional bond, and she always encourages him in his efforts and wants the best for him.

Moses also greatly benefits from his business relationship with his art dealer named Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who is also in jail (he was convicted of tax fraud). Julien has booked a big show for Moses without his permission, but the big question is can this unpredictable and mentally unbalanced man deliver?

Another vignette concerns a left-wing student uprising and even though it takes place in France some of the characters involved reminded me of the Chicago 7 or Students for a Democratic Society.

A political correspondent, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reports on a student revolt in Ennui, which seems modeled at least somewhat on some of the events in Paris in May 1968. Some of the real riots became violent and resulted in the destruction of property, including chairs and desks being thrown out of windows.

The Tom Hayden like Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet who is also currently featured in Dune), is a radical left student leader with a Dylan haircut who demands that young men be given their God given right (I am being ironic here) to be allowed into women’s dormitories.

In a crazy scene, Krementz, who dines with Zeffirelli’s parents, (obviously people with privilege) finds him in the bathtub writing a manifesto while the police are breaking up demonstrations with tear gas. The film does an excellent job of capturing that anything can happen from moment-to-moment spontaneity and chaos of the 60s.

She helps him out with the manifesto, and they become lovers, but their relationship sparks conflict with some of the other members of the political group who see her as a divisive bourgeoisie threat to group cohesion. This also ruffles the feathers of Zeffirelli’s much younger and extremely radical younger girlfriend who is in many ways Krementz’s opposite (played by Lyna Khoudri who reminded me of one of the rebellious heroines Ana Karina played).

The film has nearly as many allusions to classic films as a Tarantino movie. The vignette’s themes and content are reminiscent of French new wave films like Godard’s La Chinoise. In one scene the writer and her lover are having an intellectual discussion with their heads positioned in opposite directions perfectly balancing the shot echoing one of the most famous scenes in Bergman’s Persona.

The third and, in my opinion, the weakest of the features is the last one. It is narrated by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), who is a gay black American author who lives in exile in Ennui. He has a passing resemblance to James Baldwin who also lived in France in real life (this is the basis for his novel, Sonny’s Blues (which I have taught.)

Wright has become a food writer, and his report revolves around Lieutenant Nescaffier (Steve Park), the greatest chef of police cuisine, he prepares a special meal for a police chief which is meant to make him into a sensation, but the whole things turn sour when the chief’s young son, Gigi (Wines Ait Hellal) is kidnapped at the event by a gang.

The French Dispatch has some of the most amazing costumes and décor of the year and it never stops experimenting visually (of course not everything works). Anderson tells the stories using almost every imaginable form and or technique including split screens, live action, animation, flashbacks, and even fast forwards. Except for maybe Tim Burton or Giuseppe Del Toro no one in cinema has delivered so may consistently visually intoxicating films, at least in terms of art direction. Sometimes it seems like Anderson is throwing everything he has in his arsenal against a wall but amazingly most of it sticks.

The film is framed by an opening sequence announcing the last stories and the physical end of the magazine which is seen in the movie’s conclusion. The film left me with feeling similar to how I felt at the end of Citizen Kane as if I was witnessing the end of something important or a great era.

Some critics have called this film Anderson’s best, and while the film contains some great sequences, like many anthologies (except for maybe Dead of Night) it is slightly uneven. It is also possible that there was simply too much going on for me to absorb in one sitting. The film, like many of Wes Anderson’s features (this holds true of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work as well) would benefit from multiple viewings.

But while this film is not as solid or consistent as such instant Anderson classics as Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, the release of any Wes Anderson film should be celebrated and rewarded with customer patronage. He is one of a kind maverick who rarely disappoints.

The film is also a great argument (which is especially needed in this era with people reading less periodicals both on and offline), that magazine writing and reading are two of life’s great pleasures and one of the best ways to make sense of the world.
 

Directed & Written by:    Wes Anderson
Starring:    Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton
Released:    102221
Length:    103 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence,
 some disturbing images and suggestive material

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

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