Photo: ‘The French Dispatch’
Wes Anderson’s filmography has always been best at making audiences smile so hard they don’t realize they’re crying. It’s a strange trance that is enacted once his idyllic fables of symmetrical street corners and eccentric oddities wash over the screen, but it is almost always a welcome one. Never has this been more true than in Anderson’s latest outing, the long-awaited ‘The French Dispatch’ (2021), catching the acclaimed filmmaker at the most visually inventive phase of his entire career.
‘The French Dispatch’
Many grew concerned after learning that ‘The French Dispatch’ would be an anthology of lavish vignettes loosely tied together by Anderson’s typical panache, fearing that the film would lose the resonance and connectivity central to his success throughout his career. A cast list comprised of every familiar face in Hollywood and the knowledge that Anderson had never misfired before drowned out the naysayers and led eager fans to the theater to see the director’s first live-action project since 2014’s remarkable ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. After watching the film, it’s hard to deny that Anderson’s hot streak started all the way back in 1996 with his freshman effort ‘Bottle Rocket’ is alive and well, the story of Arthur Howitzer Jr. and The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun among the most dazzling of the director’s career.
Anderson’s long-time muse Bill Murray slots into the role of Howitzer, the film’s patriarch and mythical editor of The French Dispatch, an international outpost of the famed Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (a spoof on perennial magazines like The New Yorker). Following his death at the age of 75, Howitzer’s will stipulates that the publication is to be put on indefinite hold with a final farewell issue to be published highlighting the three greatest stories ever reported on by the newspaper to go along with his own obituary. After a brief introduction to the Dispatch, the fictional French city of Ennui in which it is stationed, and the motley crew of characters that make up the paper’s staff, the three tales are brought to life with remarkable precision and a delectable whimsy, proving yet again why Anderson belongs among the greatest filmmakers working today.
“The Concrete Masterpiece” – by J.K.L. Berensen
The first story is stewarded by Tilda Swinton’s luminous J.K.L Berensen, presenting the narrative to an eager crowd at an unnamed art conference. The chapter focuses on Benicio del Toro’s incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler, who catches the attention of a fellow inmate and prospective art dealer named Julien Cadazio and is portrayed by ‘The Pianist’ (2002) star Adrien Brody. Rosenthaler, who has gone insane after decades of imprisonment had painted an incredibly abstract nude portrait of Léa Seydoux’s prison guard named Simone, which Cadazio believes to be the next step in the evolution of artistic expression and seeks to market far and wide as soon as he is released from prison. Rosenthaler becomes an internationally renowned sensation, the world, in particular Cadazio, waiting eagerly to see what the artist will conjure up next.
After three years pass without Rosenthaler unveiling his next creation, the enraged art dealer storms his way into the prison to see what the artist has been tinkering with in the interim. He discovers a series of ten truly magnificent frescoes the likes of which had never been seen before, but quickly realizes Rosenthaler had painted onto the reinforced prison wall rather than a canvas and launches into an exasperated meltdown. Cadazio eventually comes to understand the beauty of Rosenthaler’s work, the immovability of its impenetrable foundation contrasting the elegant freedom with which it had been constructed. The tableau ends on a happy note, Rosenthaler finally making it out of the prison due to his role in quelling the riots that had occurred at the unveiling of his concrete masterpiece.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” – by Lucinda Krementz
The next chapter sees ‘Nomadland’ (2020) star Frances McDormand’s rigid and regimented reporter Lucinda Krementz take on the student riots unfolding across the streets of Ennui dubbed the “Chessboard Revolution”. She meets with the leader of the movement, Timothée Chalamet’s endearingly unsure Zeffirelli, forgoing her central virtue of journalistic integrity and striking up a brief relationship with the youthful rabble-rouser after he asks her to edit his official manifesto. I for one did not have Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet hooking up on my Wes Anderson bingo board but every second the pair are on-screen together is among the best of the entire film.
The opposition between the two helps their relationship maintain a melancholic charm throughout, one an incredulous workaholic who never found time for love and the other an idealistic young schoolboy in way over his head. With the images of the real student riots that swept Paris in the 1960s as context, this segment is arguably the most wistfully mournful, reflecting on a manifesto published before its author had the chance to figure out what they truly believed in.
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“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” – by Roebuck Wright
The final entry sees Jeffrey Wright’s didactic food critic capable of recalling every word he ever wrote Roebuck Wright. Wright, appearing on Liev Schreiber’s television show, recalls the story he wrote regarding his private dinner with the Commissaire of the Ennui police, catered by the fabled lieutenant and chef Nescaffier. In the middle of the festivities, the Commissaire is informed that his precocious young son Gigi has been abducted by a gang of criminals demanding he pay them an unthinkable ransom. After deducing the location of the kidnappers’ lair, a brutal shootout ensues leaving both parties at an impasse.
After Gigi is able to send out a message using morse code informing his father to “send the cook”, the legendary chef prepares a poison-laced meal for the criminal cabal but is forced to eat the food himself to demonstrate that it was safe. Gigi is saved and the cook miraculously recovers, but back at The French Dispatch office Howitzer compels Wright to include a final page sharing the words the cook said to him after the ordeal had concluded. Nescaffer shares that the taste of the poison, while incredibly toxic, was one completely new to him, a feeling he had never experienced before as an adult. While Wright claims the conversation “made him too sad”, Howitzer informs the world-weary writer that it was in fact the most important part of the story.
After all three stories come to an end, the audience jumps forward to see the entire staff of The French Dispatch gathered together in Howitzer’s office alongside his slumped-over body, debating over who should be the one to write the ultimate obituary to their collective mentor. They eventually elect to write the piece together, blending their unique voices and viewpoints together to create the clearest tribute possible, the ultimate goal of journalism. While certainly one of Wes Anderson’s most eclectic works to date, ‘The French Dispatch’ remains a truly charming and effortlessly endearing romp from start to finish.
Cast: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Christoph Waltz, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Liev Schreiber Stephen Park, Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Tony Revolori, Bob Balaban, Henry Winkler, Winsen Ait Hellal, Angelica Huston, Alex Lawther, Denis Ménochet, Griffin Dunne
Director: Wes Anderson | Writer: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola | Producers: Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Weobcken, Roman Coppola, Christopher Fisser
Cinematographer: Robert D. Yeoman | Editor: Andrew Weisblum | Score: Alexandre Desplat
By Andrew Valianti
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.