The French Dispatch (2021)
Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson
In recent years, director Wes Anderson’s particular aesthetic has been a point of critique and parody. As someone who has enjoyed his work since first seeing Rushmore, I have to admit that his style can be very overbearing at times, and his more recent films haven’t been my favorites. However, I get the sense Anderson has been listening but isn’t going to simply give up the stylization he enjoys. Instead, he made this anthology film that embraces his personal tastes and stretches & explodes them with slight variations. As a result, I found myself starting the film with low expectations and becoming wholly charmed by its wild non-linear storytelling.
Based on The New Yorker, the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is a newspaper run by Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), and its jewel is the French correspondents’ bureau. The bookending of the film is that Arthur has passed away, and we see the collection of stories he had chosen to be published in the paper’s final issue. Then, after a short comedy piece where Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) takes us on a cycling tour of the small town of Ennui, we dig into the meat of the film, a trio of short films.
The first is The Concrete Masterpiece, where art critic J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) delivers a lecture on a series of concrete frescoes painted by the mentally disturbed prisoner and artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio del Toro). His muse is prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), who does have feelings for him but keeps her distance. Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) is an art dealer serving a sentence for tax evasion and becomes enamored with Moses’s work. He buys it and strikes up a deal with Moses to make more, securing buyers on the outside. The whole story certainly seems like a metaphor for Anderson’s own thoughts on filmmaking. Is he making movies to sell to audiences, or is he expressing a part of himself for himself? The writing here is so damn good, and the performances don’t feel as cold as they sometimes can in an Anderson movie. There’s sly, witty humor, and every player is so good. I haven’t been a fan of Seydoux but have only seen her in big-budget movies. I think she is so funny and charming here and want her to become more of a regular collaborator with Anderson.
The second story is Revisions to a Manifesto, wherein reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reports on a student protest happening in Ennui. The leader of the rebellion, Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), wants co-ed dorm access. Krementz violates her professionalism by becoming involved with the revolutionary, sleeping with him, and revising his manifesto. He becomes involved with the more age-appropriate Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), and the story plays on youthful foolishness. I enjoyed this story because it balanced both screwball comedy elements and genuine sentiment about how fragile life can be. McDormand just brings excellent weight to whatever role she plays, taking a character like Lucinda and giving her depth and nuance. She’s a nose-to-grindstone reporter but also a romantic, yet not full of self-importance. She has set herself as an observer but can’t help but cross the lines sometimes.
The film closes out with The Private Dining Room of the Commissioner, told through a flashback from food journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). He relates a story of attending a dinner put on by the Police Commissioner of Ennui (Mathieu Almeric). The chef is the famous Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park), a police officer and world-renowned cook. Unfortunately, the dinner is interrupted when the Commissioner’s son is kidnapped by a disgruntled chauffeur (Edward Norton) who has become involved with criminal types. This is Anderson’s most cartoonish and comedic entry into the film, and I was absolutely delighted by its manic jumps back and forth through time, which never confuse but give the story this unique sense of life.
I was delighted at how much of the film was shot in black and white, a first for Anderson, who typically goes for pastels. I could also see how he incorporated techniques from his stop motion work into his live-action films. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel had these elements present, but Anderson seems to have mastered them here in The French Dispatch. This final story feels like a beautiful European comic brought to life, shades of Tin Tin. As someone who has felt like my patience with Anderson had waned, I am re-energized about his work. I’d like to see him keep pushing like this in his upcoming work and maybe explore some styles & techniques he hasn’t incorporated before. With the wild array of genres present here, I’d love to see him tackle a type of movie he hasn’t embraced before.