The French Dispatch (2021) Director: Wes Anderson
“All Grand Beauties Withhold Their Deepest Secrets.”
I do enjoy a good pastel-ridden, storybook film orchestrated by Wes Anderson. There is something elevating about his chaotic, anarchic vaudevillian escapades reminiscent of The Marx Bros, coupled with an equally ironic sense of symmetrical order and dead-pan, self-deprecating humor that I find elevating. In Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch I was most taken with tone-setting scenes, framing a triad of articles, and the small staff of The French Dispatch at its European outpost in the aptly named French town Ennui-sur-Blasé (i.e. “boredom”). Anderson wrote the script with his long-time collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and New York Times illustrator Hugo Guinness.
The French Dispatch is a movie about old and new generations, memories past and present, European art movements, and the world of American print journalism experienced through the old remote world of a French village, all explored through the lens of print journalism, namely “The French Dispatch,” a semi-read supplemental periodical a la The New Yorker that is an insert in The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun (an allusion to Hemingway’s days as a journalist). The film is an ode because it begins with an obituary for its revered but stoic Editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) whose only maxim is “no crying.” He started the periodical as a way to escape from his midwest home and begin curating travel writing. The film is bookended with his death from a heart attack which spurs one final farewell issue of The French Dispatch containing three select articles from past issues as well as a brief travelogue. In the prologue, Howitzer is still living and we follow a travel writer named Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) as he bicycles around the small French town of Ennui in a series of delightful and whimsical scenes which demonstrate the physical changes to the city and yet also show how little has truly changed. We also meet a collection of familiar faces in the Wes Anderson canon such as Jason Schwartzman, as well as Elizabeth Moss, Anjelica Huston (the narrator) and other staff members of The French Dispatch.
“The Concrete Masterpiece” – by J.K.L. Berensen
In the first segment “The Concrete Masterpiece” (perhaps my favorite of the three) we are introduced to a room full of art-enthusiasts as writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) explains the story of a long-incarcerated, mentally disturbed modern artist named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro and Tony Revolori), his paramour and occasionally nude muse Simone (Lea Seydoux), and his art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). Cadazio and his uncles (played by Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler) decide to pitch Rosenthaler’s abstract art to wealthy elite circle of art collectors. They showcase an unveiling of Rosenthaler’s latest project at the prison only to find he has created a massive series of frescoes which will be difficult to transport should anyone wish to purchase them. Prisoners begin demanding bribes and a prison riot breaks out –we are treated to a variety of hilarious tableaux vivants. In the end, Cadazio manages to airlift the frescoes out of the prison and Rosenthaler is released from prison for his help in ending the riot.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” – by Lucinda Krementz
In the second article, we reflect on the nature of journalistic integrity as we are introduced to an aging and lonely writer who is in self-denial named Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). She is an on-scene journalist in Ennui where a student protest has erupted beginning with a chess match to determine whether or not boys will be allowed into girls dorms freely. Despite her attempts to remain neutral, Krementz sleeps with a young revolutionary leader named Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and then she helps him craft a manifesto. In addition, amidst the fracturing revolt, Krementz pushes Zeffirelli into the arms of another young revolutionary named Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), and in the end Zeffirelli is killed in a radio tower accident. His face becomes the symbol of the movement –and this is all because Lucinda Krementz got involved in order to create a more meaningful story for The French Dispatch. Other notable actors who appear in this segment include Christoph Waltz and Roman Polanski’s daughter Morgane Polanski.
“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” – by Roebuck Wright
In the third and final segment “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” Wes Anderson offers us James Baldwin reborn as Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as the cinematography switches between black-and-white in a 1950s aesthetic to a color-filled 1970s talk show featuring Liev Schreiber as the host. Wright reflects on private dinner he attended at the home of Ennui’s police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) when the commissioner’s son is suddenly kidnapped by a cohort of criminals played by Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan and others. While in captivity his son sends a morse code message –“send the cook”– Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) who then poisons the crew along with himself, but one criminal escapes and leads the police on a wild chase in a cartoon from The New Yorker brought to life. Back at The French Dispatch office Editor Howitzer tells Wright to include an epilogue in which Lt. Nescaffier explains that the poison was like nothing he had ever tasted before, and they both discuss their status as foreigner.
The film ends as we return to The French Dispatch where Editor Howitzer has died of a heart attack and the staff begins work on an obituary and a final issue.