“The French Dispatch”
Photo | Indian Paintbrush
One is not neutral on Wes Anderson; his style is so distinct and so pervasive that you either really like it or you hate how artificial, quirky, mannered and pretentious it is. It is all those things, but I really like it, and “The French Dispatch” is just another delightful, verbose, candy-colored entry into his dollhouse-like cinematic universe. It is more of the same from Anderson, which fortunately means more of the same visual delight, more of the same deeply detailed celebration of creative obsession and, of course, more of the same Bill Murray.
Murray plays a magazine editor who transplanted himself from Liberty, Kansas, to France a decade ago and never looked back, creating The New Yorker-esque publication The French Dispatch. His Arthur Howitzer is a dedicated, tough leader whose motto is “Don’t cry.” While Howitzer is the reason for the film, it is the stories being written for his magazine that take up most of the screen time, and this film tells the story of the magazine’s writers, to whom Howitzer offers this rather perfect writing advice: “Make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
The newsroom setting is a rich and wonderful framing device for what is really an anthology of stories. When the film opens, we are informed Howitzer has died and the staff is now finishing what will be the final issue. Then we see the stories dramatized, each with an emphasis on the journalist’s process of writing the story as much as the story itself.
After a jaunty journey through the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé led by the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson, who I didn’t get enough of), we experience the first tale, “The Concrete Masterpiece.” As told by art correspondent J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), it is the story of a modernist masterpiece created on the concrete walls of a French jail where a trained artist and murderer named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) found an artistic muse in a prison guard (Léa Seydoux).
With that self-contained story concluded, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) brings us an account of a student uprising, centered around one wild-haired youth named Zeffirelli and, although she frequently claims journalistic neutrality, her relationship with him is anything but. Naturally, this boy is played by Timothée Chalamet, because any kid who looks like he does and spells his name like that was destined to work with Wes Anderson. Finally, what is ostensibly a food article turns into a caper about a kidnapping and ends up being about expatriatism and longing, featuring Jeffrey Wright as a sonorous stand-in for James Baldwin.
In all of the stories, the writer is recounting the process of writing the story, and doing so in various forms. One writer is recalling the story word for word in a television interview, another is giving a lecture on the work of art to a live audience. This film is not just visually detailed; its narrative functions on multiple levels. It is about storytelling and storytellers, their craft and their obsessions and methodologies. It romanticizes and fetishizes their tools and habits, but when Anderson frames these stories within stories the way that he does, the concept of a narrative becomes literalized. The medium becomes the message as a wise man once said.
It does sometimes feel like Wes Anderson just starts with what he wants to see onscreen and rigs a tale around images. As an artist, he can put the emphasis on whichever element he thinks deserves the most weight. A movie doesn’t have to be realistic. It can be a moving painting or a recorded novel. It is maybe the most Anderson-esque film yet in that it embraces his novelistic impulses most explicitly. Think of all the shots of the novels in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
This film about writing and painting features plentiful shots of the printed word as well as tableau vivant, actors frozen in their poses as if in a painting. In leaning into his most personal and recognizable stylistic inclinations, Anderson has transcended himself and perfected a style that is more than a movie.
No, he didn’t suddenly eschew corduroy or switch to a shaky handheld camera or mumblecore dialogue. Movies after all were originally called moving pictures, and that’s what “The French Dispatch” is. It’s a talking novel or a filmed article or a truly graphic novel. It’s another way of telling a story, one that focuses on the form of the story as much as the content of the story. By making a film about artists, Anderson has created an oblique autobiography about the creative process and its place in a vividly rendered, perfectly created dream world.
“The French Dispatch” is currently available to stream.
New This Week:
“Licorice Pizza”: Paul Thomas Anderson directs one of the best-reviewed films of the year, about first love in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Crescent Theater.
“Sing 2”: Can-do koala Buster Moon and his all-star cast of animal performers prepare to launch a dazzling stage extravaganza in the glittering entertainment capital of the world. All multiplex theaters, Nexus Cinema Dining.
“The Matrix Resurrections”: Plagued by strange memories, Neo’s life takes an unexpected turn when he finds himself back inside the Matrix. All multiplex theaters, Nexus Cinema Dining.
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