Review: The French Dispatch

Director: Wes Anderson

Stars: Bill Murray, Lyna Khoudri, Léa Seydoux

I’m a sucker for the tangible and the tactile. A wardrobe in my bedroom is given over to physical media – rows of boutique blu-rays – and there are vinyl records… everywhere. Similarly, I’m far more inclined to delve into a deep-dive article in print media than online, in spite of my own fervent film blogging. Most magazines are discardable, disposable… but the care and beauty that goes into an issue of Little White Lies, for instance, means that I have a stack dating back to Jan/Feb 2011. Said publication is often the barometer for quality that I aspire to. I keep them because they are objects filled with  detail and care.

American epicurist Wes Anderson’s latest offering celebrates the fervor, wit and love that goes into producing such an artifact. Set in the risibly named fictitious French township of Ennui-de-Blasé, the titular periodical is closing its doors following the death of editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray). As his stunned staff take on the news, we flip through the pages of an issue of the magazine, experiencing = in moving picture form – three prominent articles from the subsections on the arts, politics and cuisine.

Anderson’s meticulousness has often meant that individual frames of his films might be considered short stories all by themselves. Many require repeat viewings to itemise the fastidious details crammed into the corners. With this in mind, the miniature or vignette seems to be a style to which he is particularly well tailored. This anthology film – redolent with a foreigner’s Francophilia as one might expect – sees such instincts compressed further. Personally speaking, I’m finickity when it comes to Wes. Fond of some outings, irked by others, and increasingly suspect of his style. Going into The French Dispatch with a reluctantly open mind, I was surprised to find myself confronted with one of his richest and most emotionally nourishing compendiums to date.

The first of the three stories feels like the most complete, and introduces us to the handsome monochrome that features prominently throughout The French Dispatch. Here, Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L. Berensen presents for us the tale of convicted murderer Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio del Toro), who becomes the flavour of the art-world when opportunistic collector Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) spies an element of novelty in the prisoner’s singular work.

Anderson has great fun in this segment sending up the predatory nature of the art world, and particularly the taciturn nature of critics in a piece that feels wryly aware of Anderson’s own part in a very similar contract. But the heart of the piece is a surprisingly affecting love story between Rosenthaler and his muse and model; the prim prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux). Romance, it transpires, can be as fleetingly felt as the good favour of critics.

The mid-section turns to politics, and the privileged posturing of a young chess-playing idealist named Zeffirelli (human tenderstem broccoli Timothée Chalamet). Zeffirelli’s revolutionary manifesto is effectively co-authored by journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who fails to remain objective in a piece that questions the very possibility of such rigidity, recognising the human factor that elevates great journalism above the ordinary.

Here Anderson idolises the passions of youth, and provides another sizzle of romance as Zeffirelli tussles with his young rival and paramour, Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). The motif of chess is not immaterial, chiming with both the standoff between these two, as well as the stark black and white that Anderson continues to pursue. Anderson is exceedingly fluffy with the specifics of the politics in question, reducing it down to the young idealist’s dream of utopian harmony – a romantic notion every bit as headstrong as Zeffirelli and Juliette themselves.

The third story hands us over to the typographic memory of one Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) who, while being interviewed for television, recounts an anecdotal story of the kidnapping of the son of The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) and how renowned chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) became fatefully involved in the case’s resolution. This is Anderson at his most playful since The Grand Budapest Hotel; a cupcake caper that takes a riotous detour into colourful 2D animation for an absurd car chase sequence. Perhaps the strangest joke of the entire film is that Edward Norton’s character features most prominently in an animated sequence in which he doesn’t even speak (I am assuming this is intended to be funny).

The lightest of the three, it nonetheless rests on another form of love; paternal. And this, in tow, dovetails us back to the wraparound story of the death of Arthur Howitzer, Jr., The French Dispatch’s own crotchety patriarch. The overarching flow of the piece is not immaterial to its success. Something that can often prove a minefield for an anthology piece.

Everything you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson picture is here. The deadpan humour. The too-quick on-screen text and flat formal arrangements. A cast so vast that actors who might headline a major motion picture register as no more than a cameo (nice to see you briefly, Willem Dafoe, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan etc.). The French Dispatch kicks with arguably more flare than any film in Anderson’s career thus far. But that sense of enterprise is tempered – beautifully – by the use of monochrome, which dampens down the cutesiness. With the elements that might grate rendered more mutely, the emotional resonance and, yes, ennui of the piece are given clearer register.

In short, I hope he uses it more.

So there’s a kind of swirling set contradictions all around The French Dispatch. It seems like his most inconsequential picture so far, but it’s surprisingly fulfilling and leaves you with the urge to ruminate. It’s absurd in its flat stereotypes, but it also seems to hand you moments of stark honesty that transcend them. It can feel sombre, but it also conjures the same sense of a master playing in a toy box that Tarantino evidenced during Kill Bill (especially Vol. 1). The cast is undeniably cluttered, but it features a handful of the most memorable performances in the Wes Anderson filmography (Benecio del Toro and Jeffrey Wright might be my standouts).

One of the fun things about Wes Anderson is that if you ask anyone to rank his films you’ll get a different answer every time. For a director often chastised for such rigidity of style, his work provokes innumerable reactions. In this spirit allow me to finish with a statement on The French Dispatch both bold and utterly inconsequential. It might be top of my list.

I may have gone in reluctantly, but I’m glad I didn’t enter with my mind made up.

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