M, 108 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
If watching The French Dispatch feels like thumbing through an old-style print magazine at leisure, getting hooked on an arcane subject that a writer is passionate about, then it certainly also looks the part. It’s a film inspired by a life-long love of the form of print journalism that is found in The New Yorker magazine, and it reflects the great look of its line-drawn covers.
Welcome to the latest Wes Anderson experience. A novel contribution to an outstanding oeuvre. Has the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom ever put a foot wrong?
We push off from the kerb with Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), a travel writer touring the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, where the eponymous French Dispatch is published, to update an article on street life. The streetscape looks distinctly Parisian, a composite French urban milieu that reflects another life-long attachment for Anderson. The director, a Texan, has observed that French cinema invited him to France and that he has been there ever since.
The French Dispatch was made in the French regional city of Angouleme, but the world of this portmanteau film comes from the textured, witty and imaginative vision of Anderson and his production designer, Adam Stockhausen, and the rest of the team. Although Ennui-sur-Blase translates from the French to ‘bored and jaded’, we are in on the joke.
By way of prologue, introductions are made to the other eccentric writers, editors and graphic designers at the Dispatch offices. From these early scenes until the epilogue involving an unexpected funeral and wake, the filmstock flips playfully between colour and black+white, and the action from live to animated. The familiar symmetrical framings, the use of flat space and other stylistic touches begin to appear too. The filmmaker is no stickler for verisimilitude.
The first story takes us into the prison asylum, where Benicio Del Toro’s angst-riven artist, Moses Rosenthaler, a convicted murderer, is found to have a gift for painting abstraction. Fellow inmate, financial swindler (Adrien Brody), can sense an opportunity and publicises his talents far and wide, but the painter is a reluctant artist, morose and suffering unrequited love for his muse, lover and guard Simone (Lea Seydoux). His plight adds a little poignancy to the light and witty comedic tone.
The screenplay, a collaboration between Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, then turns its attention to a story with politics and poetry. It’s about a journalist, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), covering the student demonstrations of the 1960s, who helps a student leader (Timothee Chalamet) pen a manifesto. With McDormand and Chalamet opposite each other, briefly a couple, Anderson gambles on a combination even more improbable than Seydoux and Del Toro.
Chalamet, an actor du jour in pandemic-delayed releases, is indeed very talented. His performance as a cigarillo-smoking upstart firebrand by the name of Zeffirelli, is a standout in the very long list of marque name talent, from Cecile de France, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman to Edward Norton, who have readily appeared in cameo roles.
The third story, no relation to the previous, is about a kidnapping. The only son of the town’s police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) is kidnapped in a narrative that simultaneously connects the police with the underworld in Ennui-sur-Blasé with the world of haute cuisine.
a journey with stops and starts, but there is so much to enjoy in this brilliantly detailed mash-up
Disconnected they might be, but each of the three main stories is brimming with references, overt and covert, to people and events, and to the great movies of the past. Each frame of The French Dispatch is so densely packed with ideas, the film could probably withstand several viewings.
The editor-in-chief of the Dispatch, Arthur Howitzer Jr., lofty Bill Murray, presides over everything from a commanding height, helping to hold it all together. Howitzer’s stable of writers love to work for such an indulgent and flexible editor, who can accommodate ballooning wordcount in an adjustment to the masthead. The French Dispatch is, inter alia, a homage to writers, the passions and foibles that drive them, and the satisfaction they give to their readers.
It’s a journey with stops and starts, but there is so much to enjoy in this brilliantly detailed mash-up combining the director’s unique artisanal vision and sensibility, and the contributions of so many talented collaborators.